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Who's afraid of the copy editor?

My esteemed Sun colleague David Hobby posted a comment here yesterday that included this remark: “But certainly, you must realize how intimidating it would be to leave a comment here ...”

He was joking, but many people seem to approach a site like this as tentatively as Oliver Twist advancing toward Mr. Bumble the beadle with that empty porridge bowl. First-time posters at the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board sometimes write in a please-don’t-hit-me-if-I-misspell-something tone. Some people even write apologetically to me in private e-mails.

Over at Elizabeth Large’s excellent blog on dining, Owl Meat, Piano Rob, Robert (the Single One), Mr. Old Fart and the rest of the jolly gang are chatting away all the time. None of them seem to worry that somebody will tell them they don’t know how to eat.

But our educational system appears to have produced a class of people who are timorous about their ability to write in their own language. Writing, for them, is like math: They have been trained to understand that it is difficult and that they are not up to it.

The schools and colleges balance that attitude by producing another class of people who, having been encouraged in expressiveness without any guidance in usage or rhetoric or technique, write the most appalling prose in serene confidence.

Pounding on the pedagogues is one of the oldest national sports, but clearly somebody has to be held accountable. The hard-case, scolding prescriptivists have a lot to answer for, too. Either they reinforce the anxiety over making mistakes, or they encourage rebelliousness among those who are not about to be dictated to by fuddy-duddies.

There’s very little that I can do about that, except to say that, gentle reader, you are safe here. You will not be chided for naivete or sneered at for any roughness of expression. You can even use emoticons. There, what more can I offer?

And since I determine what comments get posted, no braying jackass who tries to attack you will get through.

There. Easier in your mind? Don’t forget to write.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:50 AM | | Comments (12)
        

Comments

Hi, John. Thanks for mention. My daughter was really annoyed at the head "No parking, less drugs" yesterday. I told her to lighten up. It was probably for space reasons. But see? Generation Y does care about grammar.

"Writing, for them, is like math: They have been trained to understand that it is difficult and that they are not up to it."


Isn't that sad?

I had a cousin who, despite (or because because of?) working on a consumer magazine as a technology expert, maintained that copyeditors were useless, everybody knew what the writer meant.

I don't agree that quality-control has no value, and there are lots of examples of situations in which a reader might not actually know what the writer meant.

But in the vast majority of written communication, we all DO know what we all mean.

It's long been my belief that as long as your MEANING is clear, how you get there in your writing isn't particularly relevant.

Thanks, John. After my few first tentative posts, I felt a lot more comfortable with writing. I think some of the anxiety comes from speaking your mind - or worrying about saying something silly. Blogs are big deals nowadays, and I think people realize that a lot of people will read what they say in their comments. It's nice to know that we have a quiet corner we can come relax in sometimes, though.

It's long been my belief that as long as your MEANING is clear, how you get there in your writing isn't particularly relevant.

Yes, but how you get there can have a big effect on how clear your meaning really is.

That was a good post John. I work as a technical writer creating operation and maintenance manuals for the military and we strive for clarity above all else.
It was good to see Ms. Large post here. I'm new to her blog but thoroughly enjoy it, the Sandbox as its called.

You raise an interesting question here, John, which might (if one were of the mindset) be paraphrased thus:

"Where have all the English teachers gone?"

I'm a college music professor, and struggle often to hold my students accountable for that balance between "what you mean" and "how you say it." (Well, that, and responding to the exasperated complaint, "but this isn't an English class!")

Splattering a paper with red commas, paragraph markers, and triple-underlined caps clearly doesn't help a student become a better writer--but neither does a shrugging surrender to the txt msg mentality whose battle cry is, "u no wat i men."

It's been too long since I spent time in a high-school English classroom, so I wonder: are today's students being taught the importance of audience, or are we still (as it was when I learned all this in the 80's) teaching a one-size-fits-all Code of Grammar and threatening (or promising) exile for its violation?

Hal! Another venue in which you are my hero!

===
I don't agree that quality-control has no value, and there are lots of examples of situations in which a reader might not actually know what the writer meant.

But in the vast majority of written communication, we all DO know what we all mean.
===

You mocketh. Try zoning ordinances on for size. Or almost any legislation for that matter.

THAT is the poorly written stuff that affects us the most.

Thank you for your kind words about the Sandbox. While occasional shots are taken over spelling (e.g. my recent row v. roe ops) we are generally more interested in pointing out the so obvious errors in thought made by others kicking sand that we don't have time for such simple attacks.

The Sun web headline: Propane explosion causes fire at Queen Anne's home obvious error got no traction, within this blog in another post, when I mentioned its clear error in meaning. It would seem your regular members are too well mannered to move off topic and comment. Since Queen Anne never owned a house or home in Maryland I hope whoever is responsible for that headline will be on pencil sharpening duty for a significant period of time.

Well, of course I was joking. I try to make sure my comments are comprised of only the best word usage.

I taught language arts to 8th grade students for a semester. I was shocked at how afraid they were of thier own language. Getting them to write something was nearly impossible.When I assigned each to write a poem, I thought they would pass out. When I showed then how easy it is and that thier favorite music, Rap, was poetry they understood a little better. I got great poems of them, including one from a student who wrote about how he writing poetry. Probably the best one.

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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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