The game Stet!, a spinoff of the book “Dreyer’s English,” is an excellent way to prepare for a copy-editing test and pairs well with a gin-and-tonic. Mary Norris, writing for The New Yorker: Nerdsday fell on a Tuesday this year, and I invited a friend over for a doubleheader: a round of Stet!, the new language game based on “Dreyer’s English,” followed by an episode of Mark Allen’s “That Word Chat,” a homespun Zoom talk show for editors, lexicographers, linguists, and others of the inky tribe. My friend was Merrill Perlman, who writes the column “Language Corner” for the Columbia Journalism Review, where her biographical note says that she has “managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times.” Although retired from full-time journalism, she continues to teach and serves on the board of ACES: The Society for Editing. Nitpickers by profession, we ran into a problem right away. The instructions for Stet! suggest that you “play with three or more players” (is that redundant?), and we had been unable, during the pandemic, to scare up a third nerd. The game of Stet! comprises two packs of cards with sentences on them, fifty of them Grammar cards with indisputable errors (dangling modifiers, stinking apostrophes, and homonyms, like horde/hoard and reign/rein) and fifty of them Style cards, on which the sentences are correct but pedestrian, and the object is to improve the sentence without rewriting it. There are trick cards with no mistakes on them. You might suspect that there is something wrong with (spoiler alert) “Jackson Pollock” or “asafetida” or “farmers market,” but these are red herrings.
If you believe that the sentence is perfect just as it is, you shout “Stet!,” the proofreading term for “leave it alone” (from the Latin for “let it stand”), which is used by copy editors to protect an author’s prose and by authors to protect their prose from copy editors. The game involves some role playing. If you use only the Grammar cards, the dealer is called the Copy Chief, as in “The Copy Chief shuffles the fifty Grammar cards.” If you mix in the Style cards, the dealer is the Author, the players are Copy Editors (you can almost hear an author muttering, “Everyone is a copy editor”), and the deck is huge. I got the impression from the size of the cards, which are bigger than those in a tarot pack, that authors and copy editors have large, masculine hands. I personally wear a small-to-medium-sized disposable nitrile glove and could not riffle the deck with any kind of flair (or is it “flare”?). The sporting element in Stet! is slapping your hand on the carefully sanitized table when you spot the mistake or mistakes. Points are awarded based on the number of errors planted in a sentence. Most have just one, some have two, and there are a few three-pointers. Penalties are assessed for missing mistakes, but none for introducing an error, a cardinal sin in copy editing. (Perhaps the instructions could be refined to add a slap on the hand for this.) It takes five points to win a game, and the game goes fast. I won the first round handily, mostly because my opponent, the Copy Chief, kept forgetting to slap.