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'All ways are my ways'

Over across the way at the American Copy Editors Society they’re having a friendly little discussion about words they don’t like. If it were left to that, one could pass over it quickly, as if they were talking about a dislike of the color green or a distaste for endive. Idiosyncratic and harmless.

But when the personal preference gives rise to the statement that “I always rewrite that” or “I always take that out,” I start to hear the voice of the Red Queen: “All ways are my ways.”

If copy editors allow themselves to be seen as petty fussbudgets preoccupied with rules that no one else knows or cares about, indulging in their crotchets with other people’s words, then we might as well give up the shop and allow every writer to publish without editing, because we will have injured our own credibility.

It’s entirely defensible to omit words such as currently and located, as a couple of comments suggest, because they are almost always superfluous in context. And it is entirely defensible to make any other change that can be backed up by reasoning. I wish The Sun’s copy desk had changed a reference the other day to a “stately colonial home,” on the grounds that the William Paca House in Annapolis is, in fact, a stately Colonial home and that it is inflated diction to use the same term for a modern house in suburban Baltimore County.

The whole integrity of editing rests on the editor’s ability, when challenged, to give a reasonable and persuasive explanation for every change in the text — and that disagreements over judgments can be worked out collegially, in discussion.

But to hear an editor say that he changes gubernatorial and imprimatur in copy whenever they crop up, simply because he dislikes them, he reinforces the stereotype that everything the desk does rises similarly from some obscure whim. (Besides, even imprimatur is a word a writer can have fun with, as Milton does early in “Areopagitica,” visualizing the imprimaturs in a Roman Catholic book greeting one another: “Sometimes five Imprimaturs are seen together dialogue-wise in the piazza of one title-page, complimenting and ducking each to other with their shaven reverences, whether the author, who stands by in perplexity at the foot of his epistle, shall to the press or to the sponge.”)

The public at large has no idea what copy editors do. Within the trade, old antagonisms linger, of the kind expressed by a Mr. Kirk in a comment on yesterday’s post here. I’d rather that my colleagues didn’t offer further support to that view.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (4)


What drives *me* crazy is that the upper editors for my company like to edit preferentially, and then I have to fight them to stet those changes -- for instance, they might compulsively remove the word "that," even when it adds clarity, as if clarity is worth sacrificing to save four letters -- pardon me, to avoid "wordiness." One clarifying-but-not-strictly-necessary "that" makes a sentence wordy and pompous, it seems. ;)

But, of course, because we're talking about senior editors and the editor-in-chief, preferential editing doesn't make them look like petty fussbudgets -- it makes them good at copy-editing...

Along with the Red Queen's opinion, Humpty Dumpty's view is also well-represented in that ACES discussion.

The number of copy editors who maintain that every word "means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less" is truly distressing.

I'm beginning to suspect that Mr. Dodgson knew a few copy editors.


As you've seen if you followed through both "words we hate" threads on the ACES site, I'm doomed to go misunderstood in my time.

One, I was trying to be funny by ranting about words that should be stricken from the English language. Of course I don't actually feel that way, and of course I understand that my job is not be a judge of language ... but more of a police detective or a prosecuting attorney. (Misspelling "gubernatorial," for instance, was intended to be a broad wink that conveyed my lack of seriousness on the subject.)

Two, my point REALLY is that we all practice "preferential editing," as Pam Robinson calls it ... but most of us aren't aware of it. We're largely the sum of our influences — some bullying and dictatorial in our formative years — and as such I think a lot of us make changes in knee-jerk, unconscious deference to false "rules" that were drilled into our heads decades ago. I was trying to make us all a little more aware of it by making light of it.

I apologize for artlessly making those points. Deep down, we really do agree.

But I STILL don't see how "gubernatorial" is ever the best word choice in any context.

It would be well not to disparage "gubernatorial," a word of impeccable Latin lineage, to a man with a daughter who holds a degree in Latin and Greek and who teaches Latin for a living.

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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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