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We are not correctional officers

When my wife and I were first together, Kathleen had to come up with some way to explain to civilians what a copy editor does. She settled on "He’s a kind of English teach for the newspaper." Everyone immediately understood what kind of work was involved — and what personality type is attracted to it.

The most common reaction to identification of our job, "Oh, I’d better watch my English," indicates that we are expected to exhibit a finicky precision about details that don’t matter much to anyone else, and to be censorious as well. Fear of being judged is what leads people to watch their language in the presence of copy editors and the clergy. Neither group gets invited to many parties.

We’ve brought it on ourselves. To the degree that we resemble snotty types who officiously correct other people’s grammar and pronunciation — just barely tolerable if done privately and tactfully, bumptious or outright insulting if done publicly — we are not inviting either respect or affection.

So stop editing billboards and road signs, refrain from correcting menus and concert programs, leave the church bulletin and newsletter alone, and pass over in silence any infelicities you discover in personal correspondence.

Dr. Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." In a similar spirit, don’t edit unless someone is paying you to do it.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:36 AM | | Comments (5) | TrackBacks (1)
        

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» A word to the wise (editor) from mike's web log
John McIntyre, whose blog about editing at the Baltimore Sun is always worth reading, has a recent entry titled "We are not correctional officers" in which he offers this very sensible advice to anyone who cringes whenever they find a misspelling: [Read More]

Comments

Copy editors are like air traffic control for publications. Vague, but maybe you'll be precluded from fewer parties.

I usually make a party game of avoiding saying anything about where I work, because it bends the conversation. If I must explain what a copy editor does, I say I write headlines and correct grammar and think (this all in one breath) it's the worst kind of bad manners to correct people's grammar when I'm not working. If I have sufficient presense of mind, I can then change the subject and get away with it -- but my specialty has left me deficient in other areas, and I'm just not credible with things like "How 'bout them Browns, eh?"

"When my wife and I were first together, Kathleen had to come up with some way to explain to civilians what a copy editor does. She settled on "He’s a kind of English teach for the newspaper." Everyone immediately understood what kind of work was involved — and what personality type is attracted to it."

I prefer the image of a kind of Edward Teach for the newspaper.

Pass the slow-matches, matey!

I deserve a slap on the wrist for the time I chastised the produce clerk at my local grocery for a sign that read "Celery: 99 cents a stock."
The poor man looked at me with a combination of embarrassment and amazement at the freak who had walked into his store.

Oh dear. And just today I offered an unsolicited usage correction. I saw the error on the website of a truly wonderful musical organization and thought I'd spiff up their image. The PR person thanked me and made the correction. But it's true -- I'll never be invited to her parties.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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