Is Anyone Editing Their Copy?*
While many from Washington to Massachusetts wonder what to do about same-sex marriage, a tiny corner of the Internet wages its own version of the debate.
"I'm not even troubled all that much by 'gay marriage,'" writes Tom Mangan.
"I don't necessarily think 'gay marriage' should be banned from newspaper pages," Clay McCuistion writes in response.
Mangan and McCuistion aren't discussing the moral or philosophical ramifications of allowing Americans to wed others of the same gender, or even the ethics of covering the issue. They're talking about headlines. Specifically, about the effect of using "gay marriage" in a headline versus, for example, "same-sex marriage."
As the American Copy Editors Society awards prizes to the best headline writers of the year, Mangan and McCuistion talk about headlines and other copy editing issues on their own websites. They're part of a small community of copy editors with weblogs -- men and women writing about the details of news and language.
When a big news story erupts, you can bet it's being discussed on these sites and in the editors' online hubs, the Testy Copy Editors and American Copy Editors Society message boards.
For copy editors, defending the pages of our newspapers against inaccuracy, unfairness, confusion, and abuse of the English language can be all-out war. And they trade war stories -- and advice -- on these websites.
Sometimes there are serious casualties. "I killed someone off in a headline earlier this year," confessed "Jackie," a member of the Testy Copy Editors board. ("It was only a flesh wound," Jackie assures.)
Usually, though, the battles don't go quite that far. In January, McCuistion took on the problem of redundancies such as "future plans" in news stories.
"Can plans be anything else?" he asked. "If someone says 'I have a plan,' you don't assume they're talking about a plan for a day ago, or a week ago. That person has a plan for something coming up. This stems from people's insane desire to clutter up writing with useless words. If writing exists to communicate, why add filler? No defense exists."
Mangan joined McCuistion in his rant, and a host of fellow copy editors roared in agreement with the valiant duo. They railed against dozens of phrases including "is currently," "general consensus," "safe haven," "ATM machine" ... the list goes on.
The editors don't just quibble over semantics. The blogs are full of useful notes, such as when to use "such as" and when to use "like," and whether criminal suspects are held on "bail" or "bond." Or a reminder that "ad nauseam" is not spelled "ad nauseum."
And, yes, fine, there is a lot of semantic quibbling as well, over things like the use of "impact" as a verb. "The only time I like to see the word 'impacted' is if it's a story about a painful tooth," one member writes.
Their battle may not have impacted the world of news very much. But anyone interested in writing better might want to bookmark these blogs.
Copy editors deconstruct sentences word by word, scrutinizing facts, challenging assumptions, weighing the effects of our use of language. Their discussions provide an often-overlooked lens into how we practice journalism. Take this thread for example. A simple post about one sentence in one article leads to good discussion on a host of provocative points: Who decides who's a "terrorist" and who's a "separatist group"? How do we handle foreign words and concepts when writing for a domestic audience? What do we mean when we use terms like "center-right" in a political sense?
Be forewarned, though, anyone who steps into the two main war zones -- the Testy Copy Editors and ACES message boards -- should have a thick skin. When they say "testy," they certainly mean it. Whether it's reporters, editors, or the general public, no one is above their savage snark.
I just hope they're not reading this article.
About the Headline ("Is Anyone Editing Their Copy?"): There's been some discussion over whether the headline for this article is grammatically correct. As a singular noun, "anyone" always takes a singular pronoun. This sentence is not right: "Anyone who doesn't like it can write their own article." This sentence is right: "Anyone who doesn't like it can write his or her own article."
In the headline for this article, though, the plural pronoun "their" isn't referring to "anyone." It refers to the article's (plural) subjects, the copy editors. We could have written, "Is Anyone Editing the Copy Editors' Copy?"
While the headline may be technically correct, however, the very fact that I'm posting this note means we've committed a cardinal sin of copy editing -- we've written a headline that isn't clear. A better headline might have been, "Who's Editing Their Copy?"
Even More About the Headline, But Not for the Faint of Heart: I'm leaving the headline intact, with this usage note, because it gives me the opportunity to point out another interesting debate on the message boards. (Well, interesting to me and approximately 10 other people on earth, at least.) Since we have no third-person, gender-neutral pronouns, we have to use either the clunky "his or her" or the sexist "his" to refer to indefinite singular pronouns like "anyone."
Yet everyone can understand the sentence, "Anyone who doesn't like it can write their own article." In fact, people often say that naturally. So there's no problem with clarity. And, as we've demonstrated with this headline, "grammatically correct" does not always mean "clear." So, one copy-editing revolutionary recently asked on the ACES message board, why not dismiss the rantings of grammar teachers and language purists everywhere, and just use the third-person plural, gender-neutral pronoun "they"?
As I said, there's quite a bit of quibbling over semantics. But some of us enjoy that.