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The copy editor copy-edited

A fellow journalist has taken the trouble to go over the previous posting in detail. The posting is republished here, with his comments in brackets.

The newspaper habit got hold of me early. My fifth-grade teacher, Ronnie Fern, assigned the entire class to read a daily paper, choose one article from it and write some sort of commentary.

[Which paper did the entire class read and which article did the entire class choose before the entire class wrote some sort of commentary?]

It quickly became clearer than it had been theretofore that there was a wider world outside Eastern Kentucky. 

[This odd sentence might be improved, but not fixed, if you had just said "clearer than it had been." I know, it is fun to use words like "theretofore."  The one I like is "moreover."]

The paper to which my parents subscribed was The Cincinnati Enquirer, for which by a quirk of fate I later worked. My grandparents got the Lexington Herald. When in high school I went to work during the summers at The Flemingsburg Gazette, a weekly with a circulation of about 3,000, I went through the Louisville Courier-Journal first thing every morning.

[I’ll give you the comma as a typo. Otherwise, the foregoing is a run-on sentence.]

At Michigan State University, I read the State News, a student paper more ambitious than many small dailies, and in graduate school I subscribed to the Herald-Journal in Syracuse. For nearly 20 years now, I have been reading The Sun every morning, typically uttering a good round oath and flinging it across the room at the discovery of some fresh error or infelicity that had slipped past the copy desk. Good or bad, I’ve read them all. 

[Here’s a new one for you:  How do you fling a good round oath across a room?  Here’s another: you mix up your tenses here. The  sentence is cast in present perfect, "have been reading." Therefore, the past-perfect "had slipped" is wrong.  The correct verb form, I believe, is "has slipped."]

Along with my other tastes – pipe tobacco, bourbon whiskey, Anglican liturgy – this appetite for daily newspapers marks me as one of a breed headed for extinction. My undergraduate students at Loyola College can barely be encouraged to read a print newspaper at bayonet point, and their scorn for the electronic version is equally ripe.


Phil Meyer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has projected – he likes a good laugh – that at the current rate of circulation decline, the last newspaper reader will die in 2044, by which point I should by all that is decent have climbed the golden staircase myself. 

[You really ought to avoid splitting predicates.]

Yes, I look at electronic articles, skimming the Internet throughout the day. It’s not the same as sitting down in a comfortable chair each morning, with a good light and a cup of strong coffee, to survey the world’s follies. Pointing and clicking are somehow more tedious and laborious than turning pages. And though I am not some lips-moving novice frightened by rows of type, I find reading long texts on a television screen more fatiguing than on a page, where the Lord meant for type to appear.

[delete:  "for."]

If the printed newspaper should disappear, I would mourn it. If it should not be replaced by an electronic equivalent, I would despair.

That is because newspapers are something more than a vehicle for publishers to turn over cash to stockholders, or merchants to hawk their wares, or reporters, bless their hearts, to pass off the hackneyed forms of journalese as literary art. The newspaper has been essential to the formation of a democratic society.

[Ah, come on.  "essential to the formation of a democratic society?" Somebody’s gonna accuse you of hackneyed writing.  .  .  .  Two papers that were thought at the time to be "essential to the formation of a democratic society" were the one started by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton with appropriated government funds to promote Federalist views and another, started by his rival, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, with misappropriated government funds to promote opposing Republican views.]

Hannah Barker’s Newspapers, Politics and English Society, 1695-1855 explores how the development of newspapers both expressed and reinforced what came to be called public opinion, helping to transform subjects into citizens concerned with the governance of their country and influencing that governance.   

[He should have stopped with . . .the governance of their country." ]

It was newspapers that helped to realize what Alexander Hamilton, in the first number of The Federalist, called the task of the American people, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." 

[Even old Alex fell into those wordy constructions, didn’t he?  "whether capable or not" actually means "whether capable."  The "or not" is  superfluous.  Then, he turns around and picks up a new "whether."  I don’t know if -- okay, whether ---this sentence even could be diagrammed.  I think that if the entire sentence had been  cut, the first number of The Federalist would have read a lot better.]

What my colleagues and I try to do every day in The Sun is to fit the entire world into the compass of its pages.

[Which pages?  Pronouns usually refer to the nearer precedent noun, rather than to the more remote.  I think it’s clear that the "its" does not refer to "compass," since "its" is part of a prepositional phrase that modifies "compass."  So, in this case the noun would be  "world." So you are saying "fit the entire world into the compass of the world’s pages." Obviously, the reader can figure out that you mean The Sun and not the world, but readers should not have to figure out the meaning of sentences.]

It can’t be done, but we try to include as broad a sampling of human experience as we know how to do: political news, international news, financial news, crime news, medical news, reviews of movies and restaurants, innocent amusements, all so that you, the reader, can make informed choices about your life. Choices about how to vote, how to invest your money, where to spend your money, how to talk to your children (or parents). The choices that you might otherwise make as a consequence of accident or force. We make that picture of the world as complete as we can, and we struggle to make it as correct as we can.

That is the enterprise to which I have devoted more than a quarter-century of my life, and that is the enterprise that we who share in the effort are exploring how to keep it going, on paper or in pixels.

First, though, a break. I will be gone for the next two weeks, June 12-26, for Loyola College’s summer journalism program in Cagli, Italy. Apart from tormenting the undergraduates about their prose, the great pleasures include morning cappuccino in the piazza, a glass of Prosecco at the end of the day and spirited discussion of the most important question of the day (where to dine).

But there will be no daily newspaper, and I will miss it.

And, on my way out the door, one response to my generous colleague: I suspect that Alexander Hamilton is beyond the reach of revision.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (8)


Amusing. Less amusing is the fact that outside of the nation's half-dozen largest dailies, copy editors are so dreadfully overworked that they never have time to pick nits iin such extravagant detail.

John, if you hadn’t prefaced the post as you did, I would have presumed it to be an insightful spoof of bad editing practices.

The bracketed criticism is, of course, grossly misguided, and it exemplifies the sort of shockingly incompetent prescriptivist pedantry that gives copy editors a bad name. Unfortunately, it also exemplifies how most copy editors are traditionally instructed and encouraged to approach their work.

Sorry if that sounds harsh to anyone reading this, but it needs to be said.

(If it were up to me, every time rimmers are caught superstitiously “unsplitting” verb phrases, copy chiefs would be authorized to whack them on the back of the head with a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage. And anyone caught “teaching” copy editors to “unsplit” verb phrases – be they professors, crusty old slotmen, or whoever – would be similarly bopped, but with the far-heftier Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.)

I wanted to be vague about the identity of the author of the commentary in "The copy editor copy-edited," but it now seems appropriate to say that he is a veteran reporter, not a copy editor. Perhaps he meant his remarks as a parody of the questions he has received from copy editors. Perhaps he was serious. Let's give him the benefit of a doubt.

Let's hope the veteran reporter spends as much time and effort polishing his stories as he did working you over.

I would like to know whether the use of 'since' is okay in one of the comments.

[Which pages? Pronouns usually refer to the nearer precedent noun, rather than to the more remote. I think it’s clear that the "its" does not refer to "compass," since "..........................

And just as serious a sin -- splitting verb phrases that don't need to be split. By and large, it should be a nonissue. (Is "also has gone" any different than "has also gone"?). Please, if it happens on your rim, use something even more substantial than Garner or Cambridge. A steel I beam comes to mind.

And Peter, I agree with you on the instruction, but here is the conundrum: When students come lacking in basic language skills (and that is too often the case, as most have learned their language spoken -- where there are otehr nonverbal clues to meaning -- not written), you have to include instruction in the "rules." Unfortunately, then by the time you get to the real "editing," the mindset is to fit the square peg in the round hole, no matter how much you tell them to use judgment. I've tried it both ways -- starting with more of the "editing" and working in the usage, etc., and what I find is that students then tend to slash and burn in an even more misguided way because they don't even know the basics.

In the spirit that John suggests, let's hope this was a cry in the wilderness for more reasonableness from a reporter who real or imagined has been wronged somehow. The person makes a good point or two even among the rubbish.

Italy seems a good way to escape such things.

No daily newspaper? What about the IHT? (Or the many Italian dailies...)

I can rarely quibble with either Doug Fisher or John McIntyre. But in the (unnatural) "also has gone," the stress falls on the "also." If I say, "I never have done that," surely I'm making a stronger statement than I would have with "I have never done that."

Fisher is correct, of course.

-- Alison, who tends to use the spelling "Vergil"

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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