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'All ways are my ways'

Over across the way at the American Copy Editors Society they’re having a friendly little discussion about words they don’t like. If it were left to that, one could pass over it quickly, as if they were talking about a dislike of the color green or a distaste for endive. Idiosyncratic and harmless.

But when the personal preference gives rise to the statement that “I always rewrite that” or “I always take that out,” I start to hear the voice of the Red Queen: “All ways are my ways.”

If copy editors allow themselves to be seen as petty fussbudgets preoccupied with rules that no one else knows or cares about, indulging in their crotchets with other people’s words, then we might as well give up the shop and allow every writer to publish without editing, because we will have injured our own credibility.

It’s entirely defensible to omit words such as currently and located, as a couple of comments suggest, because they are almost always superfluous in context. And it is entirely defensible to make any other change that can be backed up by reasoning. I wish The Sun’s copy desk had changed a reference the other day to a “stately colonial home,” on the grounds that the William Paca House in Annapolis is, in fact, a stately Colonial home and that it is inflated diction to use the same term for a modern house in suburban Baltimore County.

The whole integrity of editing rests on the editor’s ability, when challenged, to give a reasonable and persuasive explanation for every change in the text — and that disagreements over judgments can be worked out collegially, in discussion.

But to hear an editor say that he changes gubernatorial and imprimatur in copy whenever they crop up, simply because he dislikes them, he reinforces the stereotype that everything the desk does rises similarly from some obscure whim. (Besides, even imprimatur is a word a writer can have fun with, as Milton does early in “Areopagitica,” visualizing the imprimaturs in a Roman Catholic book greeting one another: “Sometimes five Imprimaturs are seen together dialogue-wise in the piazza of one title-page, complimenting and ducking each to other with their shaven reverences, whether the author, who stands by in perplexity at the foot of his epistle, shall to the press or to the sponge.”)

The public at large has no idea what copy editors do. Within the trade, old antagonisms linger, of the kind expressed by a Mr. Kirk in a comment on yesterday’s post here. I’d rather that my colleagues didn’t offer further support to that view.



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