Copy Editing at The New Yorker with Mary Norris. As I said here, “That was interesting, although I rapidly tired of the interviewer’s snarky-twelve-year-old style (apparently mandatory these days). But from her description of the painstaking process of editing and fact-checking, you’d never guess how error-ridden the magazine is these days.”
What It’s Really Like To Be A Copy Editor, by Lori Fradkin. As I said here:

That was amusing, and I certainly identified with some of her stories, though starting off with the “douche bag” business can only reinforce the standard image of copy editors as humorless pedants who wield dictionaries as bludgeons. I agree with the commenter who said “I enforce Chicago and Webster’s 11th with shock and awe, though I am flexible and respectful of variance and alternatives, as long as they are consistent.” To my mind, a slang term like douchebag is a prime candidate for flexibility, especially at a popular magazine like New York. Me, I would have issued a memo the first time the subject came up, saying “Look, guys, Webster’s says it’s two words; if it’s important to you to spell it as one, I understand and will abide by it, but I want it on record that I provided the dictionary spelling.” And then I would have let it go.

And a response to the previous one, What it’s really like to be copy-edited, by R.L.G. As I said here:

Except that he wrecks his own antiauthoritarian point when he says:

In some cases I might disagree with our style book. I obey it nonetheless, because rulings, even when arbitrary, keep a style consistent, so readers aren’t finding “Web sites” here and “websites” there in the same article. Readers expect and enjoy uniformity as a mark of quality.

Well, duh. Which is why style guides and dictionaries exist and are adhered to, so all his snarking about “the dictionary” is really kind of pointless, except to vent wounded authorial feelings.


  1. Doesn’t it have to go through a hyphenated phase? I will start using “douche-bag” to-morrow.

  2. The unhyphenated words “miniseries” always confuses me as soon as I scan it in text my brain never connects that it’s two words combined and it looks like ministries to me?
    We like our hypens in UKshire – “mini-series”.

  3. When I was a chief copyeditor at Time-Life (take that you New Yorker Ok’ers) I tried to make copyeditor (and copyediting) one word. In fact, for the 38 years I was a copyeditor I used it as one word. I suppose I was a douchebag for doing that. Best copyeditor joke: Q: What does a copyeditor call Santa’s elves? A: Subordinate Clauses. I was always jealous that copywriters got to be one word but not us copyeditors–even Spell Check or is it Spellcheck?–red lines my using copyeditor as one word, but it doesn’t red line copywriter. Not fair, dammit. I’m proud to say I was at one time a truly great copyeditor. Through my auspices I have given to this East Coast side of this nation several top-notch copyeditors (two gentlemen and one an “editrix”) who are still out there doing their thing in a world whose writings badly need proactive (I remember when that word was coined) editing.
    (my blog’s copyeditor is a horse: Mr. Ed)

  4. Mini-series should never have lost its hyphen. Without it, it seems to want to be stressed on the second syllable. Or lose the second syllable entirely and become “miseries.” Oh….maybe it should.

  5. It’s spelled “Spelchek.”

  6. “Coworker” is another unhyphenated pain – I see “cow” first and then “worker”?

  7. “Cow-orker” is the standard hyphenated form. (This is an Internet Tradition, as you are all of course aware.)

  8. So what’s the deal with “blond”? Spellcheck seems to prefer it, the ESL texts do too, but “blonde” gets more than twice as many ghits.

  9. Roger Depledge says:

    I still regret making him [Oliver Sachs] spell “sulfur” our way, with the “f,” when he wanted to spell it the old-fashioned British way, “sulphur,” which he’d grown up with.

    Just what is going on here? To know what is right (reasonable, courteous, tolerant) and then not do it sounds like the Nuremberg Defence.
    What if some of the venom directed at the dreaded prescriptivist mavens were diverted for a change to the principles and practices of “house style”? [style?"]

  10. mollymooly says:

    If Oliver Sachs spells it “sulphur”, let him. Enforcing too rigid a house style in a magazine is like forcing all guests on a radio show to speak with the same accent.

  11. Meh. Consistency is overrated.
    There was a nice semi-Scottish poem on The Verb mocking the notion a whiles back.

  12. Victor Sonkin says:

    I am torn between my linguistic feeling, which says that anything’s okay and the language will eventually find its way to a new norm, and my personal pedantism.
    In Russian media, copy-editing issues (when the editorial board is even aware of their existence) are often solved arbitrarily at the editor’s (usually uninformed) discretion.
    Recently, I was ranting in my blog (link:, in Russian) about the new Russian fashion of the last years to not decline Slavic names ending in -ski. Unfortunately, it does not stop with Roman Polanski.
    (Two other topics covered there were the non-declension of Russian toponyms ending in -o, and I am in a tiny minority that still occsionally declines them, and the coming non-declension of all Russian numerals, which I think is coming, but some of my opponents disagree.)

  13. the coming non-declension of all Russian numerals
    That would be a boon to mankind, even though I’m not sure whether you mean cardinals (“fifteen”), ordinals (“fifteenth) or both and possibly much else besides.
    Are fractions also included in this fair prophecy, for instance ? And doing away with the distinction between genitive singular and plural after cardinals ?

  14. Hmpf. Maybe this prophecy was only a loss-leader. I’m still not sure whether I should buy any more Russian soon.
    I remember that when I was learning Russian I thought: “My God, how am I ever going to learn this complicated business of declining words for fractions ??”. But that was a callow reaction, of course. You just learn it, and that’s that.
    Or not. My suspicion is that expressions and conventions for dealing with counting and basic arithmetic are so deep-seated – because they are learned at an early age – that it takes an enormous effort to change them. The question of course immediately arises: why should counting and arithmetic expressions be any harder to relearn than other aspects of language, which are also learned at an early age ?
    I don’t think that this is just a problem with me, although it might be. Let me assume that it’s not, so that I can embark on a bit of speculative generalization (my favorite !). Could it be that mathematical thinking uses additional/different faculties than those used in language acquisition ? Having formulated that idea, I recognize that it is by no means novel. I think it is fair to say that many people (everybody, essentially) learn to speak a natural language, but few learn to deal with mathematics beyond a certain point – what I’m calling counting and basic arithmetic. People are infinitely productive of novel speech in general, while they are usually unable to do this with “mathematical speech”.
    If this is so, why is it so ? Maybe because the production of mathematical speech/thought itself is so much more constrained than speech/thought in general ? Might similar considerations also apply to musical ability in general, say ? Deep, mushily formulated questions …
    To this day I cannot understand how any person in his right mind could multiply numbers on paper like the Germans do. I can only do it the way I learned to in the US. Also, decades ago I gave up on trying to learn to think vierundfünfzig instead of “fifty four” when I see “54″. I refuse to switch the last two digits around in my head, it’s just crazy. All I can manage is to produce vierundfünfzig verbally for other people, but when Germans read out a telephone number like “758-4833″ I usually stop them, and request that they say the digits in strict order from left to right – sometimes I add “with no switching-around funny business when you get to the end”. They usually have no problem complying. They have a bad conscience, you see.

  15. I should have made this more clear: I have absolutely no problem with “higher mathematics in German”, that is, thinking, speaking, understanding, following proofs, working out my own and presenting them … It’s just the damn “basic counting and arithmetic in German” that doesn’t work.

  16. Same here, Grumbly, I have to shuffle them around in my head. Luckily with Norwegian it’s voluntary (although all grownups do it to some extent). And in English it’s impossible too: four-and-twenty blackbirds isn’t construed by me as 24 blackbirds unless I think about it.

  17. Not to mention quatre-vingt-onzième … From a certain standpoint it’s actually very interesting, that stuff – I mean once you decide not just to be annoyed about it. I think it tends to show that counting and arithmetic in the native language don’t bear thinking about, in a strong sense. They are useful precisely because you can’t think about them and use them at the same.
    Not that different from sex, don’t you think ? Perhaps “useful” would have to be replaced by another, more apposite word in order to see the analogy.

  18. The French have no concept of “ninety”.

  19. Luckily with Norwegian it’s voluntary (although all grownups do it to some extent).
    Do what ? And what does “voluntary” mean ? Is the switching-around voluntary ?!? Or do you mean that it’s up to you whether or not you understand what people are saying when they switch the digits ?

  20. The French have no concept of “ninety”.
    And yet they claim to know all about sex. Likely story, I don’t think.

  21. Can’t walk & chew gum at the same time? It’s all a question of what you’re used to: 2×13 = 26 without thinking, but 12+14 … and I have to think about it. Or as W.C. Fields said “I’d rather have two girls who were twenty-one than one who was forty-two”.

  22. William Claude Dukenfield ! Along with Mae West (or whoever wrote their scripts) one of the most reliable fonts of eternal wisdom, in my books.

  23. He did not say “three girls who were 14″, but others have.

  24. The English used to do it backwards, too. In some 19th century novels a person’s age may be given as “about three or four and twenty”.

  25. And the Americans have “four score years and ten”. The worst of all are the Danes, as Sili has explained once or twice before:

    As touched upon in the old “I have three cows to feed” post, Danish counting is vigesimal in nature:
    ten – ti

    twenty – tyve from “two tens”

    thirty – tredive /’trɑðvə/ from “three tens”

    forty – fyrre(tyve) this is complicated because the spelling implies “four twenties but does in fact come from “four tens”

    fifty – halvtreds(indstyve) now we’re getting to the fun: “half-third times twenty”. “Halvtredje” meaning two-and-a-half is pretty much obsolete today, but “halvanden” mening “one-and-a-half” is ubiquitous (as in Demotic)

    sixty – tres(indstyve) “three times twenty”

    seventy – halvfjerds(indstyve) “half-fourth times twenty”

    eighty – Firs(indstyve) “four times twenty”

    ninety – halvfems(indstyve)
    It’s pretty rare to see the whole “times twenty” bit used today, unless someone wants to emphasise. It’s still the proper form to use to form the ordinals from the numerals, though. So 57th is “syvoghalvtredsindstyvende” (or “57.”). It’s becoming increasingly common to hear “syvoghalvtredsinde” instead though (beware the frequency and recency illousions, though!).
    Notice the ‘odd’ ds in 50 and 70, but not in 60. Those are obvious when one notices the pattern for the half counts: one, half-second, two, half-third, three, half-fourth, four, half-fifth, five, …
    They come from using the ordinal with the “half” bit.

  26. In Norwegian you can do it backwards if you want to, but nobody will force you to: fire og tyve = 24, as does tjuefire (there are two words for twenty and it’s mostly the old one that’s used with the backwards form). It’s unusual for teenagers or young people to use the backwards form, they don’t learn it at school anymore.
    Using both forms does mean that Norwegians, unlike me & Grumpy, don’t get confused by either.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    Do what ? And what does “voluntary” mean ? Is the switching-around voluntary ?!?
    Pretty much. 21 is ‘en-og-tjue’ or ‘tjue-en’. I mostly use the former in free speech and the latter when handling numerals, i.e. doing maths or reading out phone numbers. According to a study I saw not long ago, this makes me typical for people some twenty years older than me. People my age or younger use ‘tjue-en’ all around, the oldest ‘en-og-tjue’.

  28. komfo,amonan says:

    @Crown: To the non-Norwegian speaker, tyve, tredive, & fyrretyve sure do not look as though they’re derived from “two/three/four tens”. Can you show/link to the etymological steps?

  29. The French have no concept of “ninety”.

    But the Belgians do!

    To the non-Norwegian speaker, tyve, tredive, & fyrretyve sure do not look as though they’re derived from “two/three/four tens”. Can you show/link to the etymological steps?

    Have fun.

  30. komfo,amonan says:

    @Sili: Thanks?

  31. Trond Engen says:

    You misread Crown when he quoted Sili on Danish numbers. The Norwegian system is straightforwardly decimal. The minor inconveniences in Norwegian are the facts that there are both native and danified forms of some numbers (‘tjue’ vs. ‘tyve’) and that we’re in the middle of a process of change from German-style to English-style counting (‘en-og-tjue’ vs. ‘tjue-en’).

  32. That’s right, I should have put my quote of Sili in italics or something, it’s all him talking about the vigesimal Danish system after the very first colon. Norwegian is decimal, as Trond said.
    tyve sure does not look as though it’s derived from “two tens”
    I’m no linguist, but ti is ten and tyve, from “two tens”,
 is twenty (in both Danish & Norwegian). Makes sense to me.

  33. komfo,amonan says:

    Yes, Danish, of course.
    two – to;
    ten – ti;
    twenty – tyve
    two – tveir;
    ten – tiu/tigir;
    twenty – tuttugu
    I’m just not seeing the line from tuttugu to tyve, & only barely from *tveir tigir to tuttugu, but I’m sure it’s just ordinary No. Ger. sound changes, about which I know nil.

  34. Although I’d love to be able to help, the only thing I know about dansk is that I can’t understand it when it’s spoken.
    You need someone like m-l or David Marjanovi´c.

  35. Welsh has two parallel sets for numbers which the original is based on the vigesimal system and the second an artificial decimal set.
    So the number 19 is:
    pedwararbymtheg (4 and 15) or/and in decimal:
    undeg naw (10 and 9)
    The decimal system is promoted officially but the older system still lives on. You have to be careful not to mistake decimal dauddeg 20 (vigesimal ‘ugain’) for vigesimal deuddeg 12 (decimal ‘undeg dau’)
    Of course to avoid any confusion most switch to using English when dealing with numbers in conversation.

  36. tyve is historically the plural of ti. It’s the same as the -ty in English and the -zig in German. That way of doing ‘twenty’ is like עשר and עשרים.

  37. Many of you have already seen this, but I’ll put it up. As I understand this exists at several levels — actual Celtic number systems, counting systems used by shepherds et. al. who may not normally speak a Celtic language, and nursery rhymes and the like.

  38. I may start using pedwararbymtheg for 19. What a great word.

  39. Peddero-o-bumfitt is easier to remember and spell.

  40. Pedwararbymtheg also has a feminine form ‘pedairarbymtheg’ eg.
    pedair gafr ar bymtheg = 19 goats or:
    undeg naw o eifr.

  41. pedair gafr ar bymtheg
    So you say “four goats and fifteen”? That’s lovely. I think I must be genetically Welsh.

  42. Yeah, for some reason I’ve long forgotten it’s say, 4 goat (singular) and 15 = ’19 goats’ but 10 and 9 of + (soft mutation) goats (plural) in the decimal system?
    The old shepherd counting tally I’ve always known it called as “rummy tum” don’t know about the spelling and it would be more of the area of Cumbria I heard it from.

  43. Oh yes, I’ve heard of that. I didn’t see your link to it until just now. I’m going to have to do some reading about Welsh. It’s appealing for no particular reason except that it seems quite a challenge.

  44. j. del col says:

    William Claude Dukenfield? Godfrey Daniels!
    “And here on our left are some lovely catalpas!”
    (or something like that.)

  45. j. del col says:

    It turns out that the line from –The Bank Dick– is “I believe those are catalpa trees.”

  46. AS the poster over on Johnson “venting my wounded authorial feelings”, I have to say that Dave Wilton got what I was trying to say (and you missed it slightly, Hat): I abide by (and impose, while I’m editing) The Economist’s style book not because I appeal to its authority with glee. It’s just our standard. If I had a discussion with one of our authors (and I was editing), I wouldn’t say “You’re *wrong*. Just look at the style book” as Fradkin does. I’d say “look, in this case, I think the rule is justified, and that’s because…” or “look, in this case, I agree with you that the rule’s a bit silly, but John and co. want it that way and we are expected to maintain uniformity, so sorry but…” I would never appeal to the book’s authority on its own and try to stop a discussion right there. That’s the antiauthoritarian position I was taking.
    So: house styles, consistent guidelines:, an ongoing conversation about keeping the rules up to date: good.
    “You’re wrong, because the dictionary says”: bad.
    Seeing the difference: good.

  47. OK, that’s fair enough, and I’m sorry I misunderstood you. But it’s a bit idealistic to expect copyeditors to keep saying things like “I agree with you that the rule’s a bit silly, but…”; under the pressure of deadlines, and in the reasonable expectation that professional writers would long since have become accustomed to the idea of following style guides, it seems inevitable that they would start getting a bit snappish.

  48. Christophe S says:

    I remember a working group co-chair who signed some of his e-mails as “John the Cockhare”. Apparently, that’s how his text-to-speech software pronounced “cochair” (without a hyphen).

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