Revenge of the Copy Editors.

As a copy editor myself, of course I enjoyed this piece by Thomas Vinciguerra, which begins:

Backed by the cheery fiddle and guitar of Tom Moss’s “Gypsy Night Dance,” the bespectacled white-haired gentleman in a blue blazer, striped bow tie, and pocket square is holding forth on the language issue of the day.

“I’m sometimes asked,” he tells the camera, speaking patiently but gesturing intensely, “‘Is “data” singular or plural?’ The answer is yes.”

As soon as I read the description of the bespectacled white-haired gentleman, I knew it was John E. McIntyre, whom I have featured repeatedly here at LH (2010, 2013 [257 comments!], 2014); after introducing him, it continues:

McIntyre, the night content production manager at the Baltimore Sun, is one of an increasingly visible and robust breed of public masters of style and usage who have parlayed journalistic copy-desk expertise into an enthusiastic online following. In an age of texting and tweeting, these folks are trying to keep the mother tongue healthy, and their presence constitutes a refreshing renaissance for a profession that is generally underappreciated and rarely noticed—until, of course, a mistake shows up in print.

The thing about McIntyre, of course, is that he has an understanding of language informed by linguistic science, which is as rare among copyeditors as in the population at large; the article goes on to celebrate Mary Norris of the New Yorker, who has consistently irritated me with her stubborn insistence on every bit of peevery that has encrusted the magazine over the years, but heigh-ho. It’s all worth it for the end, which returns to McIntyre:

Admittedly, the copy editor’s lot generally remains a lonely one; whether working in graphite or keystroke, practitioners don’t often endear themselves to their writers. Ask John McIntyre, who served two terms as president of ACES [the American Copy Editors Society] from 2001 to 2005. Recently, he recalled the organization’s first conference 20 years ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for CJR.

“There were maybe 300 people,” he says, “and someone said that was probably the largest gathering of copy editors in one place in history. I came back and told that to my wife. And she said, ‘Except in hell.’”

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    “The copy editor is the bridge who keeps the writer from tripping up.”

    Pretty good mission statement there. A fo ben bid bont.
    But better yet might be “The copy editor is the bridge who keeps the *reader* from tripping up.”

    A writer knows what’s in his mind when he writes (well, ideally.) It’s remarkably easy to forget that your poor reader does not have that privilege. It’s good if somebody can get to your text and say “wha?” before the end-reader has to.

  2. As one who has occasionally copy-edited, I learned two things: that I edit my own copy a lot worse than that of others; and that deciding whether to have commas or omit them is an art, not a science.

  3. Yes, and that goes double for hyphens.

  4. Oh, hyphens! That is nothing but a wretched arbitrary convention, neither scientific nor aesthetic, nor even stable: we pass from base ball to base-ball to baseball in less than a century, and email has lost its hyphen even faster, except I suppose in the New Yorker.

  5. Greg Pandatshang says:

    At first, I was afraid this was going to be about copy editors changing “Gypsy Night Dance” to “Romani Night Dance.”

  6. Rodger C says:

    Don’t you mean “Roma and Sinti Night Dance”?

  7. Greg Pandatshang says:

    I’m just surprised there were enough Roma-and-Sinti who had received knightships for them to have much of a dance, if I’m being honest.

  8. I edit my own copy a lot worse than that of others

    That seems to be true of everyone, and is why we need copy editors: when we read our own work, we read what we think we have written, not what we have actually written.

  9. That’s why even opera primadonnas have voice coaches, I suppose.

    Also, once I have written something, it has no novelty for me. I also enjoy other people’s cooking better than my own, even when making the same things.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Y: Opera primadonnas have been taking voice lessons for years before they started performing at the Met or the Scala, and they need periodic refreshing since the vocal organs evolve with age, like everything else in the body.

    once I have written something, it has no novelty for me

    I feel the same. I hate to have to repeat the same thing, say as introductions to papers dealing with related topics. Rereading my own work is faster than with others’ work, because I tend to skim rather than read it carefully.

  11. Oh, hyphens! Oh, heavens! Email had a hyphen? Must have been when I wasn’t looking.

    Ectually (sic), I like hyphens, and dashes too! More than commas. But of course they have to do with feeling, which is why they’re not stable. And why they (all three) tend to be overused. But (big but) if one ( don’t look at me!) learns to control them, and use them sparingly, they can make one’s prose express one. And as we see, parentheses too.

    Hmm! Don’t care for that ‘express’. Too ambiguous. But I love ambiguity!

    What were we talking about? I think maybe I need one.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, hyphens! Oh, heavens! Email had a hyphen? Must have been when I wasn’t looking.

    I actually keep it there because of émail (more of a consideration in German than in English, admittedly).

    And why they (all three) tend to be overused.

    You think? I find all three of them underused, especially in English. I keep stumbling over sentences that would be unambiguous if they had a hyphen in the right place!

    Still annoyed there’s no dash key on any keyboard layout. MS Word comes closest in allowing Ctrl+minus…

  13. I actually keep it there because of émail (more of a consideration in German than in English, admittedly).

    Same here (though because of French rather than German). I hate the hyphenless spelling quite irrationally and am sorry it seems to be taking over.

    Still annoyed there’s no dash key on any keyboard layout.

    It’s nice that this comment software automatically converts two hyphens to a dash — like this.

  14. On Moby Latin the em-dash is AltGr+Q followed by m. I leave you to guess what the en-dash might be.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Oh yeah, Ctrl+minus is the en dash in MS Word; the em dash is Ctrl+Alt+minus.

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