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Rejected copy editor comebacks

Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, writes in her characteristically restrained and civilized way about the way people should talk to copy editors at parties and other social events.

“Ask if she’d like another drink” is an excellent suggestion. “Uh-oh, I’d better watch my grammar!” is contraindicated.

Usually, it’s best not to disclose that you are a copy editor. People shrink away like a slug encountering salt. The ones who stay are the ones who are apprehensive that you’ll correct their wretched grammar or, worse, who want to exhibit their pet peeves to you. Better to say something like “I sell crack to schoolchildren” or something similarly innocuous.

Over the years I’ve toyed with a number of responses to “Uh-oh, I’d better watch my grammar!” and have managed to suppress them all. But this is a sharing blog. Here are some that I’ve swallowed, and you’re welcome to add yours.

The opening:

“Uh-oh, I’d better watch my grammar!”

The responses:

“Yes, do.” [Turns on heel, makes for the bar.]

“Why start now?”

“Oh, I doubt you could afford my fees.”

“Actually, you should be more apprehensive about that tie/suit/dress/hairdo.”

 “It don’t make me no never mind.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:18 PM | | Comments (12)


The opening:
"What does a copy editor do?"

The end.


The opening:
"You're an editor? Don't quote me."

The end.

I always use a comeback I heard you use back on the old blog, in which you said, "I only edit when I'm being paid to do so."

I've used "I only correct people's grammar when I'm paid to" before.

Another is "I'm only an editor by day." If they ask what I am by night, I say "drunk."

"What do you do?"
"I'm copy editor."
"What is 'copy' anyway?"

Actually, I seriously doubt if you really understand what grammar really is, as opposed to spelling, punctuation, usage, syntax, style, word order, sense, typographical errors, fact-checking, writing, rewriting, layout, meeting deadlines, diplomacy in general and human relations in particular, or commanding respect for a superb knowledge at all times for all of the above day in and day out without breaking a sweat. But I am expert at them all in addition to mere "grammar," thanks for asking! Fortunately, I'm off at the moment. Would you mind passing me my wine?

Actually, I doubt if you realize that "grammar" is but a small fragment of what I do. I also work with spelling, punctuation, word order, fact-checking, writing, rewriting, meeting deadlines, basic diplomacy, advanced psychology, wholesale reorganization of massive passages of utter drivel, the massaging of merely excellent work into prize-winning work without anyone noticing, and detailed research on the most arcane subjects you can possibly imagine, sometimes to determine whether a passage should be a subordinate clause or best stand as a separate sentence. Fortunately at the moment, I'm off ... would you mind handing me my wine?

Copy editors get invited to parties?!?!?

You get the same response if you say you're an English teacher.

You don't get invited out much, anyway, do you, Bruce?

You could have a contest; what are the archetypal responses people get at parties when they say what they do?

For mathematicians, it's "Oh, I can't even balance my checkbook."

Opening: "Why does anyone have to edit what's copied?"

The response: "It's complicated."

Opening: "Oh, so you\re at the paper. I thought I recognized you."

Response: "No you didn't."

Opening: "Do you write the clever headlines?"

Response: "Yes."

At least copy editors don't have this reporter's nightmare: A reader comments on one of your stories and clearly hasn't understood a word of it.

'Uh-oh, I'd better watch my grammar!'

[blank stare, implying I've never heard this before] 'Why?'

The awkward factor has just jumped off the charts and deduced its way to the internal combustion engine and hot toddy.

Possible elaboration:
'I mean, you're, like, the grammar expert!'


'That's what you do, right? You check grammar all day.'


'You're a copy editor!'

'Yeah. [allow awkward silence] What do you do?'

This method will almost certainly ensure that you never have to speak to anyone at parties, and can spend the time getting to know the single malt.

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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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