Baby puppies and High Velocity Angry Canaries

Many years ago, when I worked for Scott, Foresman and Company (yes, the Dick and Jane people), editorial seminars were de rigueur. At one such gathering, we received handouts containing examples of “baby puppies.” Regrettably, I no longer have the handout, and none of the other examples stuck with me like that one did. However, I can still discuss the concept–and how my view has changed over time.

We were told in no uncertain terms to avoid redundancies such as “baby puppies.” And, dutifully, we excised them from our texts. Luckily for those of us in the nascent Electronic Publishing Division (now extinct), our work seldom included such things. We dealt with user manuals for educational computer games and school management software. That gave us whole other grammatical and usage-related jungles to hack through with our CMoS-issued machetes, but very few “baby puppies.” I felt cheated, sometimes.

Now, I have a different perspective. Yes, a puppy is a young dog. But not all puppies are babies, are they? Some are nearly a year old, and certainly no longer deserving of the “baby” descriptor. Those little cuties who aren’t yet weaned, though–they’re baby puppies, for sure. The same logic applies to baby kittens. Baby kittens are itty-bitty furballs with tiny, high-pitched mews. And hypodermic-needle-sharp claws and milk teeth.

When I was forced to take a creative writing section in high-school English, I used the phrase “bone-dry dust.” In large (not-so-friendly) red letters in the margin, the instructor wrote “What other kind is there?” So much for my creative writing. That pretty much killed what little interest I’d had to start with, to be honest. Even at that age I was much happier fixing poor grammar and mechanics than trying to be creative. At least I didn’t have to go through that again.

We still find examples from the Department of Redundancy Department, often in the chromakeyed lower-third crawls on local news programming. “Fatally killed” is a common one. “Fatally shot,” fine. “Fatally stabbed,” sure. “Fatally killed” just makes someone who (thankfully) remains faceless and nameless look foolish (while being faceless, which is a pretty cool feat all by itself, isn’t it?).

Another issue pointed out on the handout for that particular seminar was assuming that your editor/proofreader knows what you’re talking about. The example was from a brochure for a heating and air-conditioning business. The copy used the acronym “HVAC,” and the senior editor had noted “write out” in the margin. A junior editor got the project next, and took a shot at the meaning without looking it up (this predated the Internet, you see–it would’ve meant physically moving around in search of a reference book or someone else who knew the information). That’s how the phrase “High Velocity Angry Canaries” found its way into one version of the brochure in question. No word on whether it actually saw print. One would hope it did not. (For anyone who doesn’t know, HVAC stands for “heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning.”)

If by chance you’ve written a technically-oriented piece, please do your editor a solid (ooh, I’m trendy!) and provide a file of the specialized vocabulary you used. That will save everyone involved time and frustration, and potentially could save you (the writer) money as well–because your editor won’t have to dither around looking up information you’d have been better off providing yourself. This is also true for fantasy/science-fiction writers, truth to tell. If you’ve made up a number of alien races, providing a file containing the names of each (spelled, capitalized, punctuated the way you want them) will save your editor hours of headaches wondering whether the right form is “Graz’zyt” or “Grazz’yt.” (And honestly? Apostrophes have been done to death. Please consider not using them in proper nouns. Thank you.) Also please include proper names of any members of those races, with correct mechanics and spelling. Extrapolate as you will from what I’ve said here and decide what else you need to apply this to. I have confidence in you. I really do.

And editors? Don’t be afraid to ask your writer about providing such a file. They might grouse and grumble at first, but once you’re deep into the project and you don’t have to harass them daily with questions such as how they really want to spell “Graz’zyt,” they’ll thank you. (And if they don’t, shame on them.)

Until next time, then, I hope you all have as much baby puppy face time as you wish. (Or baby kitten face time, if that’s your thing. Or baby something else. Maybe you don’t even like babies, in which case–okay. I need to go now.)