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Say it louder

They’re talking among themselves over at Testy Copy Editors about whether they should have allowed something to reach a crescendo. As usual, the discussion moves quickly from the word itself to the politics of editing. Let’s separate some of the elements for examination.

From the start, you know from piano lessons or high school band or listening to Rossini overtures that a crescendo is a steady increase in volume. It isn’t the loudest point, but the progression from the softest to the loudest. It isn’t the peak of Mount Everest; it’s the climb.

Dictionaries, which register widespread usage by people who blur distinctions, blur this one, recording that many speakers and writers of English use the word in the slacker sense.

The choice should be easy. Whenever you see a technical word used in an imprecise or inaccurate way — such as schizophrenic to mean being of two minds about something — you know that this will be a minor irritant to the informed reader. And why would you want to irritate the smarter readers?

But crescendo was the writer’s choice, and the writer put it in the lead paragraph, and procedure must be followed. One envisions something like this: The copy editor walks hesitantly to the assigning desk and stands there, cap in hand, until the assigning editor turns his majestic brow. “Please, your worship,” the copy editor says, “begging your pardon, and mayn’t I change this one little word to keep our writer from looking like a horse’s ass?” The assigning editor allows one grave nod and turns aside, while the copy editor backs away, saying, “Thank’ee, sir, thank’ee; you won’t regret it.”

Let’s look at the noble sentence in question: A dreary week of gray skies, drizzle and snow flurries will reach a crescendo today, with a strong storm expected to drop 1 1/2 inches of rain on the South Bay. We’ll have to assume that, since the writer doesn’t appear to know the strict sense of the word, reach a crescendo must mean to attain the highest pitch of intensity. So, apparently, a week of fluctuating and not much substantial weather will come to a climax today as Jove hurls his thunderbolts from the summit of Olympus and California gets an inch and a half of rain. Wow.

It might also occur to those of you familiar with newspaper journalism that in such contexts, reach a crescendo is also a damn cliche.

The thing, though, that troubles me most, is the tone of some of the responses to the original question. I sense, from the repetition and context of the word “purist,” a hesitation to make distinctions, an apprehension of being labeled as preoccupied with trifles. And if what I sense lurking in the background is the case, that my fellow copy editors have internalized the those-fussbudgets-on-the-copy-desk-are-at-it-again attitude one gets in newsrooms, then we have hobbled ourselves and compromised our effectiveness. Diminuendo.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:06 PM | | Comments (3)


Editor alert! Editor Alert!

An editor seems to missing, or, perhaps, asleep.

Paragraph six, sentence three appears to be discussing mere sparks coming from mighty Jove. The thunderbolts are "weak", too.

I absolutely hate it when one like that gets past me. I suspect I am not alone in that.

(I can't believe I was the first to comment on this! This note was written, but not edited before publication. Any errors of commission or ommission went unknown to the writer.)

Ah, you have reached the apex of clarity.

"Weak" fixed as "week." Thanks.

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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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