Cranky for cause

The Baltimore Sun

My esteemed former colleague Elizabeth Large responded on Facebook a couple of weeks ago to a comment about the joy I presumably get for cheerfully turning dreck into art: "Two things I know. He's not being cheerful. Also his irritation at drek far outweighs any pleasure he gets from editing it."

Just so.

I have been reflecting since on the irritability of the copy editor. Acknowledging that it may merely rise from cussedness, a quality either inborn or developed early in life, I nevertheless think that there a good reasons for it. 

The first is that copy editors, whatever the appearance of their desks, esteem order, clarity, and consistency in prose. Sloppiness and disorder offend our sense of the rightness of things. There's a tinge of obsessive-compulsiveness to this; we itch to set things right.

And it arouses our scorn when disorder is wanton. Not over typographical errors, slips of memory, sentences that get tangled in their own feet. That, after all, is what we are engaged to deal with. And I don't usually trumpet students' inept writing. Students are unskilled; that's why they are in class, to become skilled. What stimulates scorn is willful ignorance and arrogant disregard among putative professionals. 

You can look at desks in newsrooms and see dictionaries dated from the first President Bush's term and AP Stylebooks published when Ronald Reagan was in office. You can see yellowing copies of Grammar for Journalists, which proclaim, "I am a second-class student of grammar, not ready for the real thing." You can talk to professional writers who have never consulted Garner or MWDEU,* relying instead on usage superstitions they have never examined. 

Then there are the writerly writers, who, after filing a bricolage of affected diction, mismatched metaphors, and heavy-handed allusions, complain that the editing has drained the life from their work. 

Those of us who have been around for a while also recall the contempt in which the copy desk was often held, by reporters who referred to it as "the Dullatron" and editors who jocularly called it "a necessary evil." Time and corporate scythes have removed most of them from newsrooms, but they, like schoolyard bullies, have an enduring, long-term effect on attitudes and perceptions. 

For the record, I formally concede that I have known a handful of copy editors as purblind, rule-bound, and tone deaf as the stereotype about us. You think that leaves me any less grumpy?




*Garner's Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Dear Lord, did I have to explain that? 

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