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Copy editor, copyeditor, schmopyeditor

Carol Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, author of the book of that name, and a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, recounts at her blog her horror at the discovery, as her book was going to press, that The Chicago Manual of Style prefers copyeditor.

These things happen. There was grumbling in certain quarters when the newsletter for the trade changed its name to Copyediting. We’re copy editors, the Old Guard rumbled.

But in fact there has long been varying practice, the copy editing at newspapers, magazines, and books being distinct branches of the craft with little crossover. Some were copy editors and some copyeditors. (In Britain, we’re subeditors, or subs.)

There’s little prospect of a resolution of the inconsistency, and there is little need for it. One consequence of the Worldwide War on Editing is that both copy editing and copyediting are vanishing. To the advanced thinkers in the world of publishing and their cheese-paring financial minions, we’re living in a merry post-modernist world in which things like factual accuracy or external reality are mere constructs, chimeras. Readers don’t care so long as they get what they want.

To these worthies, copy editors might as well be scratching quills on vellum in the scriptorium. Dispensable. Oh, there will be some remaining redoubts—Chicago, Oxford, The New York Times while it lasts. But to those of us who have had a glimpse of the future, it’s evident that the time is not far off when a lexicographer will make an entry along these lines:

copy editor (alt. copyeditor) n. (archaic)



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:53 AM | | Comments (11)


I've decided to avoid the issue by defining myself as a "content editor."

COPY EDiTER a arkaic positon fourmerly asoccated with commercial writen comunication.

(fromthe comilation WHATEVAR HAPPEND TO ENGLISH, by unknon arthurs)

In our world, a distinction is made between developmental editing and copy editing; the latter is perceived to be basically just fussy tinkering with sentences and, one suspects, thought to be a fancy (and expensive) way to run spell-check. However, at least when the latter is skipped, the occasional error is evident to even the most skeptical bean counter. The former is virtually invisible to these same people, yet it's where much of our value really lies.

The death of copy editing is the logical end point of the "computer revolution" which did away with blue-pencil editing, copy boys, proof readers, printers...need I go on?

And what it has delivered us to is something very much like the opportunity to read Thomas Wolfe's scrawl on that crate full of butcher paper without the meddling of Maxwell Perkins.

Joy, joy.

And in the library world there are copy catalogers, also known as copycats.

This looks like the right moment, before it becomes moot, to ask a question that has bugged me for a while: What does a copy editor do (intransitively) at work? Copyedit or copy edit?

Dictionaries seem to duck the issue. In my innocence, I assumed that @MerriamWebster would reply to this tweet:!/notrehta/status/89006704439734272


Can anyone here help?

Most of us just edit copy while swearing musically under our breath.

Apropos of almost nothing, who spellchecked the URL for this entry? "ediotr" -- O my! A forgotten Russian novelist, perhaps?

Not all copydesks work the same way, of course.  Claud Cockburn recorded that on his first day working at The Times office he was delighted to find things just as he had imagined they would be.   "In the Foreign Editorial Room a sub-editor was translating a passage of Plato's  Phaedo into Chinese, for a bet.  Another sub-editor had declared it could not be done without losing a certain nuance of the original.  He was dictating the Greek passage aloud from memory."

Another sub that first evening was given a two-line Reuter paragraph saying the Duke of Gloucester  had arrived at Kuala Lumpur.  "The sub-editor, a red-bearded man with blazing blue eyes, who looked like a cross between John the Baptist and Captain Kettle, had at the age of twenty or thereabouts written the definitive grammar of an obscure Polynesian language and gone on to be [...] a professor of Chinese metaphysics in the University of Tokyo.  He took the slip into the library and then on to the Athenaeum."  Some hours later he returned with his work on the paragraph completed.

"It had been a tricky job.  'There are,' he explained, 'eleven correct ways of spelling Kuala Lumpur, and it is difficult to decide which should receive the, as it were, imprimatur of The Times.' "

(from Cockburn's autobiography, "I, Claud..." This is long before The Times fell into the kindly but efficient hands of Mr Murdoch, of course.  And when dealing with anecdotes from Olde Fleet Street it is as well to adopt a postmodern approach to what we used to call "facts".  After all, can it really have been nearly 50 years since Kuala Lumpur was made capital of Selangor before The Times determined its preferred spelling?)

I suppose, Picky, that such a remote part of the world had formerly been beneath The Times's notice.

American reporters used to use "Afghanistan" as a place where no news ever happened. As Mencken once said "The net effect of Clarence Darrow’s great speech yesterday [at the Scopes monkey trial] seems to be precisely the same as if he had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan." Nowadays, of course, Afghanistan is a happening place for news.

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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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