By David Cay Johnston

Honoring The Word Police

January 3, 2014 12:00 am Category: Memo Pad 14 Comments A+ / A-
Honoring The Word Police

Let us praise copy editors — and mourn their dwindling numbers.

Copy editors are to writers as nets are to trapeze artists, saving us from typos, careless mistakes and metaphors so slippery that no reader can grasp their meaning.

Today’s Internet is rich with snarky observations highlighting mistakes that, until the last decade, copy editors were paid to catch and block. Expect this to become a growth industry.

As the ranks of copy editors shrivel, the frequency of linguistic crimes will increase, eroding the structure of language and our ability to communicate with one another.

I think of copy editors as the word police, the plainclothes enforcers of the rules of grammar, syntax and publication style, as well as the checkers of dubious or unattributed fact.

Most of these offenses are unintentional. Still, without copy editors to catch and correct written infractions and felonies alike, our English language will be the victim.

Unpoliced, languages deteriorate. Linguistic anarchy just makes for misunderstanding.

As time passes language should become simpler and easier, elaborate linguistic rules worn smooth by time and usage.  Chaucer becomes Shakespeare becomes Austen becomes Hemingway becomes Roth.

Without the word police to enforce those rules—and allow them to be ignored now and then to advance the language—English can become strewn with sharp edges and broken concepts that impede the flow of ideas.

Languages are dynamic. And just as street cops can stand in the way of perfectly appropriate behavior, so too can copy editors rigidly enforce rules and kill improvements, creativity and playfulness with the English language. But you have to have enough cops, street or word, to do the work.

American newspapers employed 32,470 editors of all kinds in 2000. By 2012 a third of them had been let go.

Of the 21,760 editors remaining, another 6,100 editors will be cut by 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates, leaving America with fewer than half the newspaper editors it benefited from at the turn of the millennium.

To the many journalists like me, more reporter than writer, copy editors are loyal friends. Indeed, for the self-taught writer they are the very best of friends, defined as those who tell you what you need to hear, not what you wish to hear.

How I long for the 1970s and ’80s, when the Los Angeles Times national desk was rich with wordsmiths.

For pieces running in the paper’s most prestigious real estate, the first column at the top of Page 1 (known as the “non-dupe” for non-duplicated story), a copy editor would routinely devote a half-day to polishing. My byline made that space often, at times requiring a full day to make the words and concepts sparkle.

Breaking news got plenty of copy desk attention, too. The speed and skill with which some editors could take a story written in such haste that the first word might be typed an hour before deadline testified to the high level of skill on the copy desk.

Sitting in a distant hotel room or flying to a new story, I always compared line for line what I had banged out on my zipper-cased Olivetti portable typewriter with what appeared in print. These reviews were always instructive, sometimes painful and rarely annoying.

The best copy editors, all writers know, make them look better than they deserve. And at the L.A. Times in those days, subscribers were treated not to just dry news reports, but often-lyrical essays in what was in many ways a very well-staffed magazine posing as a newspaper.

L.A. Times copy editors whose names have faded from memory polished away burrs, focused insights and corrected verb tenses, always with reverence for the writer’s storytelling.

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Honoring The Word Police Reviewed by on . Let us praise copy editors -- and mourn their dwindling numbers. Copy editors are to writers as nets are to trapeze artists, saving us from typos, careless mist Let us praise copy editors -- and mourn their dwindling numbers. Copy editors are to writers as nets are to trapeze artists, saving us from typos, careless mist Rating:

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  • sigrid28

    Speaking from the perspective of both a writer and an editor, I would identify the copyeditor’s I’ve known (and sometimes joined the ranks of) not with policing language but more with indulging a fanatical obsession with the written word. A lot of us seem rather cranky, maybe a bit mousy looking, with ink on our fingers day in and day out (figuratively these days), eraser crumbs on our shirt fronts, beneath glasses dangling from geeky looking chains, lugging about dogeared dictionaries and thesauruses, some of us a little too friendly with the reference librarian, if you ask me. We pride ourselves in descending from the famous amanuenses of antiquity, scribes copying the words of speakers who cannot–or would not–write. Our forebears have been intermediaries of the illiterate lovelorn, phrasing passionate correspondence for fools who cannot write their own. About this unhappy lot there is an inescapable aura of being always the bridesmaid, never the bride, as well as a distinguished literary tradition. Take for example the famously unhappy lovers in “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985) by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. For the first years of their lifelong love affair, with Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza communicate mainly through letters and telegrams. Later, he supports himself as a scribe in the marketplace, writing letters for the illiterate, even writing poetry–the ultimate form of writing that is meant to be borrowed. Only as a widow is Fermina free to express her love in person instead of on paper.

    • Laura

      Oh dear, Sigrid, that is the most bloviated piece of “writing” I’ve read all day. You obviously knew this would aggravate all “copyeditor’s” who read it. It’s killing me that I can’t get in, chop it down to something intelligible and fix the errors. Thanks for the chuckle!

      • davidcayjohnston

        Columnist here…. LOL

      • sigrid28

        Take the chance. I’d love to read it.

  • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

    So, David, is this how Murdoch saves money? By not hiring copy editors?

    • davidcayjohnston

      Would that it were only Murdoch — its universal.

  • jointerjohn

    It seems that our culture now values speed and economy over quality in many areas, ideas conveyed by words being only one. I believe the grammar checkers built into most word processor software would cause my late fifth grade teacher to spin in her grave. Routinely now I see sentences beginning with conjunctions and ending in prepositions in every newspaper I pick up. Most alarming though is what I find when I have conversations with educators, or see them interviewed on television. I listen to them murder the language and then cringe to think that these are the persons with whom our children spend their days, mostly listening. Bad habits are learned through exposure and it appears that at least in my area, no one is scoring applicants for teaching positions on their language skills.

    • Laura

      >”Routinely now I see sentences beginning with conjunctions and ending in prepositions in every newspaper I pick up.”<

      You are so right! As a copy editor, I offer you this: "Now I routinely see, in every newspaper I pick up, sentences that begin with conjunctions and end in prepositions."

      • sigrid28

        “Now I routinely see, in every newspaper I pick up, sentences that begin with conjunctions and end in prepositions.” Do you find this a bit windy? Try:

        “Today, you can find sentences beginning with conjunctions and ending in prepositions in every newspaper.”

  • r.l.newsom

    Shouldn’t that be “cared not a whit”?

    • davidcayjohnston

      Indeed, which is why I (like many others writers) need copy editors….

  • Maureen Mitchell

    Why is every sentence treated as a new paragraph? Another reason you need a good copy editor.

    • Laura

      In newspapers, narrow columns turn book-length paragraphs into long, ugly blocks of type that are hard on the eyes. That’s one reason you’ll often see one-sentence grafs in papers.

  • starrbux

    Those who profess no limits to the actions which can be taken in the majority’s name are undermining liberty and democratic processes.

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