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Keep your crotchets under control

I would sooner wear my hat in church or drink my tea from the saucer than use the word normalcy in ordinary conversation or writing.* But that is merely a personal crotchet.

I understand perfectly well that the word was in use in English long before the egregious Warren Gamaliel Harding made it the catchword of his inept presidency. I wouldn’t presume to reprove anyone else for using it in conversation, no matter how Babbitty it sounded to me. That would be ungentlemanly. Neither would I excise it from quoted matter in an article, or even deny an author the freedom to use it. That would be to misuse the power of an editor.

That’s just one crotchet. I have many more, and I expect that you harbor a collection of your own. That’s to be expected. People have individual tastes and pronounced preferences.

The trick in editing is to recognize your own idiosyncratic preferences and not allow them to take control. Some people, especially those to whom a sip of authority has the same effect as two martinis on an empty stomach, find that more difficult than others.

As an editor, you are expected to know the rules of grammar and usage in standard written English, and to recognize when application of those rules is important—don’t imitate the editor E.B. White cites who changed a shocked husband’s “My God, it’s her!” to “My God, it’s she!” You are expected to know what level of diction is appropriate to the subject and the occasion.

Most difficult of all, you have to develop your own taste while recognizing its limits. The author you are editing has to do the same thing, and there the balance grows even more delicate. You will have to ask yourself, repeatedly, whether you are merely imposing some personal preference in the place of something that is perfectly all right, which is an abuse of your authority, or saving a writer from his or her own ineptitude, which is the reason you were given that authority.

If that leaves you questioning your own judgment, then you have achieved a state of what an experienced editor will recognize as normality.

And please, no peeving on the premises.  


*Except, as always, for sarcasm.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:35 PM | | Comments (2)


It sounds like this book is saying some of the same things you are saying here (cf. last paragraph on page 1):

In my journalistic career I have run into a number of people with fetishes about aspects of language, such as the senior sub-editor who insisted "said" (and indeed "insisted" and similar verbs) should always be followed by "that". There would have been no point in telling him he was trying to impose a rule which simply did not exist in English. (And if you failed to twitch at the absence of a "that" after "telling" there, I've just made my point …)

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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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