In my job as a copyeditor, I recently came across the following term: right bicep. Do you see anything wrong with that? Look closely.
It should be right biceps, with an s. A biceps is a single muscle made of two parts (biceps comes from the Latin for two-headed), such as the biceps brachii in the upper arm. So, if you have two arms, you have a right biceps and a left biceps. (The plural is also biceps or, less commonly, bicepses).
If you didn’t see the error, don’t feel bad. That’s what copyeditors are here for. Personally, I got excited when I saw it, because it’s an error I don’t come across often. Most of the clients I work with have no reason to mention their biceps. I’ll admit, I did a little happy dance as I added that s. Finally, a piece of obscure knowledge I carry around all day had come in handy.
That’s the thing about copyeditors. We know the big stuff, like subject-verb agreement and where to put a semicolon, but we also often know the little stuff, like why biceps is singular and the fact that Frisbee is trademarked (another edit I recently got excited about).
However, this brings us to a quandary that copyeditors often face: if many of our readers don’t know this stuff, is it always best to make these changes? In the case of biceps versus bicep, bicep is so common as the singular form (M-W Unabridged has it going back to 1837), that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to call it an error. Spellcheck won’t flag bicep, because it’s legitimate as a modifier; you could sustain a bicep injury while doing bicep curls.
Copyeditors are trying to fight the good fight, but whom (another word on its way out) are we fighting it for?
It’s a judgement call every time, and the number-one consideration is reader comprehension. Will the reader know that right biceps is correct, or will they trip on it? The role of the copyeditor is to bring clarity to the written word, but if right biceps introduces confusion instead of clarity, do we make the edit?
Another consideration is the medium. Is this an academic paper? A fictional work? A social media post?
If I’m editing an academic paper—something with a long title that’s getting published in a quarterly journal for people smarter than I am—I’m going with right biceps, with a confidence level of 100%.
If I’m editing fiction, and it’s part of the narrative, I’ll again go with right biceps, though my confidence level might be more like 93%. If it’s dialogue from a character who would most likely say right bicep, then I’m going with right bicep, because that’s how people talk in everyday speech—but I’m also adding a note for the client explaining my decision.
If it’s a social media post from a gym, right biceps. I’ll assume most of the people following a gym will know what’s correct, and even if they don’t, I want the gym’s managers to maintain their image as experts. If it’s a social media post for a bar, I’ll flag it and ask the client to decide. They know their audience best, and they know what most of their audience would find confusing.
When we as copyeditors flag things and ask the client to decide, we’re not passing the buck; we’re staying in our lane. We know what’s technically right and wrong according to the latest guidance from dictionaries, style guides, and other resources. We know what our gut says and what we personally prefer. But it’s not about us. It’s about reader comprehension and client satisfaction.
So, when we come across something that we personally consider an error, we have to think carefully about the role of the copyeditor. Is this the time to flex our muscles as possessors of obscure knowledge? Or is it better to step aside and let the readers and the words work themselves out?
Written by Dragonfly Editorial’s Dave Nelsen, Proposal Writer.