My name is Steven, and I am a copy editor

November 27, 2012 by · 7 Comments 

I recently read a 400-page novel (no, I shan’t cop to which one) in which someone was referred to as grabbing “the reigns of power.” The misuse of the word “reigns” in this phrase bothered me inordinately. But I was equally bothered by the degree to which this mistake nagged at me. Here was a work of great ambition, published by a reputable house, and I found myself fixating on four words. Four words out of some 170,000 other, properly deployed and emotionally resonant words. I felt like Hazel Motes’s grandfather in Wise Blood, a preacher who travelled around “with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.” Except instead of Jesus, I had a picayune error in usage lodged in the back of my head.

It was certainly not the first time I’d experienced this feeling. More and more I’m noticing typos and syntactical errors cropping up in professionally edited books from major publishing houses. Misplaced modifiers proliferate the prose of otherwise competent writers, and instances of fuzzy lexical thinking scream out of works of fiction and non-fiction alike. One academic text I recently encountered contained so many errors in the footnotes I had to put the book aside or risk harming myself or others.

Nor is this tendency on my part restricted to professionally edited or published works. When I come across a sidewalk chalkboard with “2-for-1 martini’s” or “half-price nacho’s” written on it, I will surreptitiously erase the errant apostrophe. Walking down the street the other day, I saw a sign advertising the annual “Movember” drive to raise funds for prostate cancer research appended with the phrase, “Support prostate cancer.” I practically went into conniptions.

My name is Steven, and I am a copy editor.

It is no secret that copy editors spend extraordinary amounts of time obsessing over whether a semicolon should really be an em-dash or a period, sweating over agreements between subjects and objects in sentences, and muttering under their breath about the distinctions between “that” and “which,” “effect” and “affect,” “less” and “fewer.” What worries me is the degree to which one can get caught up in these technical matters, to the extent that the joy of reading is ultimately lost. (I was tempted to use the word “impacted” in that last sentence, but the copy editor in me vetoed it.)

So I was pleased to read Yuka Igarashi’s piece about copy-editing the latest issue of Granta, if only because it reassured me that while I may be crazy, at least I’m not alone. Igarashi writes, in part:

There is a danger to copy-editing. You start to read in a different way. You start to see the sentence as machinery. You focus on the gears and levers that connect words to one another; you hunt for the wayward semicolon, the unintentionally ambiguous phrase, the clunky repeated word. You even hope they appear, so you can kill them. You see them when they’re not even there, because you relish slashing your pen across the paper. It gets a little twisted.

As with any kind of technical knowledge or specialization, it is possible to take copy-editing too far, to be ruled by it, to not quite be able to shut it off when it ought to be shut off.

Igarashi goes on to suggest that the diligent care copy editors take with a text does not necessarily preclude an enjoyment of literature, and she’s probably right. But she is also right to point out that time spent professionally editing copy makes you read differently: it makes you more demanding, pickier, more willing to pounce on inconsistencies like the disparate use of the American “toward” and the British “towards” in a single text. These things appear to take on disproportionate weight, which makes the thud when they topple off the written edifice that much more pronounced.

Obviously, writers should take care to ensure that every single word they use is the best one, and is used correctly. However, we are all human, and we will all inadvertently substitute “reign” for “rein” once in a while. The copy editor in me will still get his back up, but I’m working on it. “Half-price nacho’s,” on the other hand, is indefensible.


7 Responses to “My name is Steven, and I am a copy editor”
  1. Clare says:

    Oh, I hear you loud and clear. I am wont to rant, “Are you kidding me? Are you KIDDING ME?” when I notice (what I consider) egregious errors, even though I hope I would be forgiven as a copy editor for not catching everything.

  2. Janie says:

    Oh thank goodness for validating that (a) there really are more spelling and punctuation errors than before and that (b) others wants to scream at excessive & incorrect use of the apostrophe. I’m still wondering how ‘disrespect’ became a real verb. Legal, but just doesn’t feel right.

  3. Alex says:

    As always, I blame the Internet and computers.

    I’ve yet to see any reporting on this, but for some reason my brain (and I think from the evidence this happens to a lot of people) just freezes or goes to sleep when keyboarding (commenting on a blog or writing emails). Especially when it comes to homophones. I’m always subsituting a wrong word that sounds the same when I’m writing something online. I’m talking howler mistakes that I’d never make if I was writing something out longhand (like reigns and reins). And then of course those are the mistakes that tools like spellcheck won’t catch because you’ve spelled the word correctly, it’s just that it’s the wrong word.

    The missing apostrophe in public however has been with us for a while. I think that’s just laziness and most people making those signs don’t care anyway (the point of the sign is just to convey information quickly, and it does that job with or without correct use of an apostrophe).

  4. ZW says:

    I don’t think computers have anything to do with making mistakes, but I think digitized text has a lot to do with preserving mistakes. It’s just too damn easy to go from ms. to finished book now. Steps that were once de rigueur get skipped. Like copy editing. And proof reading. The two are often conflated and they shouldn’t be. Every book should go through a copy edit, followed by a proof read. But the evidence suggests neither happens at most presses these days.

  5. Nigel Beale says:

    Yeats couldn’t spell.

  6. saleema says:

    Oh god, yes. The worst feeling as a copy-editing-oriented writer is getting your MS back from a reputable publisher and seeing things that have been changed by an editor or copy editor TO BE WRONG. My indignation knows no bounds at that point.

    I have a friend who got into a major squabble with the press who published her novel over ungrammatical changes they kept trying to make on jacket copy that they had asked her to write (for her own book). Ugh ugh ugh.