“When you are proofreading, do you focus on syntax or semantics?”
Needless to say it caught me on the hop for a minute as I wasn’t expecting such a searching question that early in the morning and the coffee hadn’t yet kicked in, so I had to think carefully about my answer which ended up being somewhat guarded.
I said that it very much depended on whether I was carrying out an editing role or a proofreading role as the balance between the two can be very different.
I was relieved when he said that another proofreader had said more or less the same when asked that question too.
After the meeting I reflected on our discussion and the more I thought about it the more relevant that question became. So, when the opportunity next arose, I looked up the dictionary definition of syntax and semantics.
This is what my New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors says:
Syntax: The arrangement of words and phrases to form sentences.
Semantics: A branch of linguistics and logic concerned with the meaning of a word, phrase, sentence or piece of writing.
I think I was right to give the answer I did because, as an editor, I think semantics will tend to take the lead, whilst working closely with the author so as to preserve the ‘voice’ in which the piece is written.
As a proofreader, however, after the editing has been done, then syntax will take the lead because the focus is more on the words themselves and the checking of spelling and grammar. There will always be circumstances when what I’m reading doesn’t quite make sense in which case I simply raise a query with either the editor or the author to have another look at that piece of text before committing to publication.
I’m now beginning to wonder if this guy was a mystery shopper! Maybe I need to be on my guard now at future breakfast meetings!