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Gag me with a copy editor

I think it’s fair to say that Benjamin J. Marrison, editor of The Columbus Dispatch, is forthright. Here is what he said in an article in yesterday’s editions: “Thursday’s front page made me want to vomit.”

Thursday’s front page misspelled the first name of the president of the United States, twice. And Mr. Marrison went on to recount other instances of embarrassing errors creeping into his pages.

I’m not going to badmouth The Dispatch, where I have been a guest on a couple of occasions, and some of whose copy editors I have known for years and whose chagrin I can share. What Mr. Marrison describes can happen, and does happen, at any newspaper. At any publication. That is why I’d like to address the situation broadly, beyond The Dispatch.

The brutal fact is that American newspapers, coping with drastically shrinking revenue, have drastically reduced the levels of editing, with a concomitant increase in errors, slipshod writing, and other defects. Copy editing, in particular, was seen at the corporate level as a cost center, an expensive frill, money wasted on people obsessing with commas. Copy desk staffs have been decimated, more than once, or eliminated outright with the work transferred to distant “hubs,” where, unlike Cheers, nobody knows your name.

So let me pose a couple of topics for publishers and editors to consider.

It seems clear from the reports of the few remaining ombudsmen (another frill) that readers are complaining about errors in print and seeing their number increase. One of the unexamined assumptions of the War on Editing is that readers, comfortable with the lack of editing standards on the Internet, would be fine with low-grade stuff in print. I know that newspapers notoriously do little audience research, but have you made any effort to determine whether this is actually the case? Do errors make your readers want to vomit, too?

The other unexamined assumption was that, with the elimination of copy editors, reporters would pull up their socks and make greater efforts at accuracy, knowing that there would be fewer checks on their articles. How’s that working out for you?* Anybody holding the reporters responsible? (Remember that what is everyone’s job is usually no one’s job.)

Newspapers are struggling to learn new tricks. They are beginning to adjust to Web-first publication instead of holding on to stories for hours-old appearance in print. They are trying to juggle photo, video, Web, and print, though they have not yet figured out how to do so efficiently. They are beginning the attempt to engage with readers through social media. And they are doing this with fewer people than they have had in decades. It’s very difficult.

One can hope that in time, as they master the new tricks, they will relearn some old ones: accuracy, clarity, quality.


*I know that at The Sun I find typos and other errors in the SEO (search engine optimization) fields of articles reaching the copy desk. Since those articles are approved for the Web before reaching the copy desk, Google and the other aggregators that have made a pass at those articles will have picked up the errors and spread them abroad.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:08 PM | | Comments (20)


In the war on editing, it's important for editors to pick their battles. Too many editors fuss over minor points of style or contrived distinctions like that/which that don't really help the reader. Editors need to be able to justify their changes and the time they spend making them, or we run the risk of making ourselves irrelevant.

Nicely and concisely said. Will anyone listen or want to be challenged?

Of course, the deterioration is worse in cybertexts and spoken media. To those guys as respects your output just so far this month: John Roberts is Chief Justice of the United States, not Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; the word "artesenal" does not exist in English, what you were searching for is "artisanal;" "council," "consul," and "counsel" are three different words with three very different meanings; the country's name is Ukraine, not "the Ukraine" (that's an informal region); indictments are handed up, not down; the t in "often" is always silent; and the word "normalcy" does not exist in English except as historic presidential slang (read: wrong word), what you were searching for is "normality."

In the past two weeks I've emailed The New York Times twice regarding frontpage errors which got through the desk, and they weren't misplaced commas, or the use of "that" instead of "which." I get livid when I see these errors, and it's getting worse all the time. We(editors) all make mistakes, but the number of mistakes is increasing far beyond the occasional typo or run-on sentence. I remain optimistic, but it's getting more difficult.

Evan Wilson says that the t in "often" is always silent ... to which I would add, except when it isn't. It is easy to find justification for pronouncing the t as standard pronunciation online.

Thank you John for recognizing that copy editors do more than correct commas. We ensure that content is factual and authoritative. You are correct that reporters, as well as all content creators, will not step up to the task of self-editing. The first rule you learn in proofreading school (yes they do exist) is that it's impossible to review your own work because you are in love with your words and will usually fail to see the errors. The writer and editor relationship is one to respect. It also keeps institutions from appearing ignorant.

"Do errors make your readers want to vomit, too?"

Absolutely ... while understanding WHY they happen and not blaming the staff so much as the cut-backs that have made these things happen. As a former reporter, of course I always aimed for self-correction and clean copy, but, as Sharon stated, writers need someone else to review the work, preferably more than one person.

We need to show management more things like the story in the Stamford Advocate. A woman was referred to as an "... advertising executive [who] has gone from a vision of a highly successful businesswoman and doting mother to a caricature of community sympathy and overwhelming grief."

What made her a "caricature" in this reporter's vocabulary? The Christmas Day fire in which she lost her $1.5 million house, both her parents, and her three young daughters.

From word processor, through spell check, to type setting - with no oversight - will save money at the same time educated readers get offended, but will it be enough to pay the bankruptcy lawyers after we leave?


This is a commentary I kinda roughed out around a week ago, but didn't get a chance to post, that clearly doesn't really relate to Prof. Mci.'s article, at hand. Hmm...... what else is new?

I tried to find the actual comment you posted w/ the appropriate article and post there, but for the life of me could not seem to track it down.

So here she blows, for what it's worth.

------I must echo your sentiments re/ Patricia the Terse's use of the word "whelmed", which apparently, in it present tense, "whelm", is rooted in Middle English (ME) and is defined (at least according to my trusty Random House Webster's College Dictionary), as "to submerge, or engulf", or further, "to overcome utterly".

I suspect one could be literally whelmed by an approaching tsunami, or perhaps more likely whelmed w/ deep emotion, say in contemplating a stunning natural vista, contemplating a particularly moving piece of art, or experiencing the awesomeness of say the interior of St. Peter's cathedral in Rome, planted squarely under that magnificent grand cupola, w/ Bernini's imposing cast bronze altarpiece within mere eyeshot.

I've often pondered over the rather odd sounding word, "disgruntle", meaning "to put in a state of sulky dissatisfaction", or "make discontent", wondering if "gruntled" sans the "dis" could be a legitimate word. Turns out the "gruntled" part of "disgruntled" has no real meaning standing on its lonesome, and is always conjoined w/ "dis".

Interestingly, it turns out that the "gruntle(d)" segment of "disgruntled" is a frequentative of the word "grunt". Who knew? (Makes a lot of sense though.)

I seem to vaguely recall an early episode of "Seinfeld" where George and Jerry are arguing over the validity of the word "gruntled" as a legitimate word, since, as their warped train of reasoning went, before one can be disgruntled, surely there must be a earlier emotional state of being "gruntled"------ basically a condition of existential satisfaction, or contentment.

As was so often the case w/ 'situations', or circular debates in this wacky sitcom, nothing was really resolved in this particular discussion. Of course, as most devout "Seinfeld" fans know, it was basically "a show about NOTHING", anyway.

Now for me, the word "debunked" presents yet another conundrum.

For instance, can we say that a particular geometric theorem, or an individual's claim to the validity of said theorem can be "bunked', since it can clearly be 'debunked'? (I know I'm sounding a tad silly here. Bear w/ me.)

Hmm... maybe that's where we get the word "bunkum'; in-other-words, a bunch of baloney.

Now one could come at this mind-bender from a totally different angle, in the context of bunk beds. If one were tossed from one's bunk, then it follows that that individual has been debunked. No? (Maybe a bit too literal there.)

Frankly Dahlink, I'm totally discombobulated over this whole discussion......... w/ myself. I'm far more comfortable being simply 'combombulted'......... and I can live without the dissing, thank you.

Trust you are having a good week.


Alex, maybe I shouldn't admit this, but sometimes we think alike!

Dahlink? Evan Wilson? How do we know whether or not the "t" is silent in the written word? Did I miss something, here? Did I miss wry humor??

Eve, bless her heart, skipped too fast over my first couple of sentences in which she would have learned that my complaints were extracted from cybertexts and spoken media I saw (or heard) in the first days of 2012. I am also by this thread brought to the demasted-dismasted confusion that I have detected in recent years and help for which may also be adduced from the Seinfeld episode referenced. Demasting is not an English word. Dismasting means the subject vessel is now without a mast or masts it once carried.

Never mind. (I still miss Gilda)


I know i've been accused, on occasion, of being slightly thick-headed, but I am truly puzzled here. Did I somehow miss something in the translation? I'm referring to this "Gilda" gal from your last, brief post.

Now mind you, I do have an now ex-wife (my one and only spouse) by the name of Gilda. Although later in life, long after our quite amicable parting, she did decide to officially change the capital "G" in Gilda, to a capital "J", 'cause she basically preferred the soft "G" sound to what most folks who didn't know her would invariably use, i.e., the hard, courser "G" inflection. Like with Gilda, the late great comedian, Ms. Radner.

Eve, I believe I'm pretty safe in saying that you, and my 'ex', Gilda,------- a once most comely, rather petite, then-youthful, very artistic Bulgarian-born lass w/ whom I was almost immediately, and hopelessly smitten on first meeting-------never, knowingly, crossed paths? Glad we got that one out of the way. (Whew!)

And I really doubt that you would be "miss(ing)" the fictive Gilda, as played w/ consummate sex-and sizzle by the lovely Rita Hayworth in the eponomously named 1946-released feature film? I'm sure actor Glen Ford*, her co-star, was pining for gorgeous Rita, though, as were scores of red-blooded American males. (Oh behave!)

So that pretty much narrows the mystery down to either one of your former, departed workplace colleagues. a close friend who has moved out-of-state, or perhaps some gal w/ the online moniker Gilda who once frequented the "You Don't Say" blog, prior to my arriving 'on the scene'.

'Fess up my dearest, Eve. Who is this mysterious Gilda of whom you speak and miss so very much?

Inquiring, (simple, nosy) minds want to know.

*Glen Ford, one of America's great leading men actors of the bygone, kinda mid-20th century Hollywood film era, was Canadian-born, although like so many of the Great White North's most talented performers of stage, screen, and TV (and music fare), Ford, and his fellow Canuck aspiring thespians like Willian Shatner, Lorne Greene, Gienvieve Bujold, Margo Kidder, Donald Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, and Lloyd Boekner opted to test the beckoning greener pastures south of the 49th parallel, finding both fame and fortune far beyond their childhood dreams in the U.S. .




No sooner had I clicked on "Post" to dispatch that last inquiry re/ the Gilda 'mystery', I read your line one more time, and suddenly realized you were referring, indeed, to the late, great SNL stalwart, Gilda Radner, w/ her fictional SNL Nightly News reporter, the hearing-challenged, Emily Latella's classic closing perfunctory phrase, "Never mind', after she's totally misheard a key word in a particular breaking-news story sound bite.

Like for instance when she misconstrued the headline "Violence in the Middle-East causes extreme collateral civilian damage." * Emily Latella then proceeds to expound on the news piece, in on-air essay comment form, but mishears the word "violence", as "violins", which puts a whole different, and zany spin on the proceedings.

And then the sheepish, inevitable, "Never mind", after the error of her ways has been gently pointed out by faux news-anchor Chevy Chase, or Jane Curtin.

Then there was the "world peace" faux pas where Emily though for sure she heard 'whirling peas'............ or something to that effect.

Eve, didn't I earlier admit that I had a thick-head. Never mind. HA!

*I made up this header, but Gilda Radner's Emily Latella did have a hilarious bit w/ her Emily character mixing up the word "violence", w/ "violins".


Slow down. You move too fast. Got to make the morning last.

Prof, Mci.,

Clearly, you are feelin' the 'noir' vibe, big-time.......... lookin' for fun (in the dark shadows, and deep recesses of you noggin), and naturally "feelin' groovy". You're definitely in a 'noirish' (as opposed to a Billy Joel, New York) state of mind. Very cool.

Here's a little YouTube bit of Simon & Garfunkel '60s magical music nostalgia to slow us folks down just a little more, mellow out, and totally embrace the coming Grammar-noir magical mystery tour.;_ylu=X3oDMTE0NGozM2tzBHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDNARjb2xvA3NrMQR2dGlkA1FJMDI2XzE4OQ--/SIG=12076bsj1/EXP=1326364637/**http%3a//

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" just don't make the final cut tonight. "The Boxer"......... I was seriously tempted.


I've only met one real life Gilda ever. She explained that her father was a huge fan of that Rita Hayworth movie.


Hmm........ I don't exactly know whether to take your begrudging observation from a while back that we tend to think alike, as a compliment, or perhaps a slight dig? (Just joshing. HA!)

What's that old saw----- "great minds think alike"? (Well maybe, in our case, that one might be a tad hyperbolic, i.e., the "great" bit. Not very cool to blast one's own horn in public.)

Moving along. -----That "real life Gilda" you referenced, earlier, kinda lucked out.

Her dad could just as easily have fallen for actress Hermione Gingold in say the 1950's classic film "Gigi', playing opposite the suave and debonair, Maurice Chevalier. (Granted the young Ms. Gingold was hardly as fetching as the ravishing Rita Hayworth who played the Gilda role in "Gilda".)

I've never met a gal named Hermione I didn't like. Frankly, I never met a Hermione, period. HA!

Now "Gertrude" is yet another rather quirky, fairly rare, woman's name that you don't see, or hear that often these days. Yet it appeared to suit the rather mannish, aesthete Ms. Stein to a veritable "T", back in the day when she and her life-long partner, Alice B. Toklas held their famous soirees, inviting the creme-de-la-creme of the Parisian literati, and blossoming modern art scene to attend. Alice B., at any rate, seemed to have no problem w/ Gertrude, either her slightly dorky name, or the rather formidable life force that she most certainly was.

A Gertrude, is a Gertrude, is a Gertrude by any other name. Right?

Interestingly, both Madames, Stein and Toklas, are appropriately buried, head-to-head in Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris, w/ Toklas' name and key dates (birth and death) carved on the back face of Stein's headstone. (How very sweet, no?)

Of course the mortal remains of the American rock-star Jim Morrison, and the brilliant Irish-born playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde, are also interred at Père Lachaise. As I recall, the noted British figurative sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein created an impressive winged bronze figure, in a kind of art deco style, to mark Wilde's final resting place. Quite moving.

Boy....... if those tombstones, and crypts could only talk. (Wow! That's a bit creepy. Never mind.)


Alex--what, me, take a dig? Heaven forfend! They don't call me Dahlink for no reason.

I did not know about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas being buried head to head. That seems only fitting somehow. Maybe we should organize a Wordville field trip to Père Lachaise.

For a fine example of Hermione-dom, I recommend Harry Potter.

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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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