Editor’s column: Nmotes on copy-editing (I meant to do that)

  • The proof is in the proofreading.

Published: 3/5/2019 1:49:18 PM

Every once in a while, my neighbor, who is in his 80s and a faithful reader of this newspaper, walks over to my house and hand-delivers a fresh batch of typos clipped from our pages. The errors are circled, annotated, cut out and sorted. He is a wonderful neighbor who also has brought our family homemade pie, handmade wooden toys and a bird feeder. But the typos are not of his making — they are of the Gazette’s. And he just wants me to know about it. He’s not the only one.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a writer I admire at the grocery store and decided to introduce myself, with my 2-year-old daughter in tow. I recognized this writer from her author’s photo, and to my surprise, when I told her my name, she recognized me, too — as the editor of the Gazette. She reads the Gazette daily, she told me, as we chatted in the checkout line. She couldn’t start her day without it, she said. 

After singing the paper’s praises, the writer, who shall remain anonymous, mentioned that she has noticed a decline in typos recently. And she has been keeping track. Somewhat sheepishly, she told me she keeps a file of Gazette typos and other copy errors. Her favorite one? A reference to “anti-Semiotic graffiti.” We shared a laugh, and then she offered to share the file with me, in case it would be of help to my staff. She made me promise that, if I did show the contents of the file to my staff, I first tell them how much she loves and admires the Gazette and appreciates the work we do. 

Later that day, I went to the Y and ran into David Daley, an author and a former editor of the online magazine Salon. As we headed into the gym to work out, I told David about the writer and her typo collection, and he empathized, later asking, somewhat jokingly, “What is wrong with people?” Meaning, the kind of people who would keep a typo file in the first place.

Here’s the thing: Those are my people. I love thinking about grammar, and I perversely love finding grammatical errors. Whenever I spot one and stamp it out, an old TV ad for a household insecticide plays in my mind: “RAID!” screams the scared cockroach, before vanishing in a puff of spray. 

Every once in a while, a reader calls to ask me why our copy desk didn’t catch an obvious mistake. Here’s what I never say: What copy desk?

Our multitasking night managing editor, James Pentland, started out at the Gazette as a copy editor, back when the Gazette had a copy desk. But copy desks — and designated copy editors — are a relic of the past at many newspapers, including ours. In 2017, even The New York Times began the process of dismantling its stand-alone copy desk, which was responsible for catching factual and grammatical errors and keeping articles in line with the paper’s style guidelines.  

I’m keenly aware of the fact that our readership includes lovers of the written word; not only celebrated authors but all kinds of close readers, including college professors, elementary school English teachers, Merriam-Webster lexicographers and even a few former Gazette editors. 

When editors catch typos, we fix them online. But that doesn’t help when a reader has spotted an error in print. I regularly get handwritten letters, emails and phone calls from close readers pointing out copy-editing mistakes. Some might find this habit annoying, but I appreciate the effort that goes into clipping an incorrect usage of “onto” vs. “on to” or “affect” vs. “effect.” The effort goes both ways. As the former editor of the opinion page, I spent a substantial part of my day fact-checking and copy-editing reader-submitted columns and letters to the editor.

Without a designated copy desk, it’s all the more important that our reporters and editors also be trained as copy editors. And I think that’s a good thing. You can’t be a great writer if you don’t care about copy-editing. I often think of an essay written by Julia Holmes, a copy editor I know, for The New Republic. In the wake of cuts and consolidations happening industry-wide, she says, “what language reveals, in every choice we make, no matter how trivial-seeming, is: Everything. Everything about our culture and our selves. What a copy editor, fundamentally, asks is: What do you mean here? It’s a question that deserves your respect.”

This essay is now four years old, but it is just as relevant now. Consider the success of grammar guru Benjamin Dreyer’s bestselling book, “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” Americans are craving clarity that cuts through the noise.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about style. At the Gazette, we follow the standards outlined by the Associated Press, which mandates, for example, that we don’t use the serial (or Oxford) comma, with rare exceptions. That rule bothers me, and I’m thinking of changing it. Following the news that the state House and Senate recently threw out some gendered terms, including “maiden speech” and “His Excellency,” I’m also reconsidering our tradition of using “chairwoman” or “chairman” instead of, simply, “chair.” I think you’ll know from the context that we’re not referring to something you sit on.

Anyway, I’m still mulling it all over. In the meantime, feel free to send us corrections when you spot errors. We’ll do our best to fix them and avoid making them in the first place. 

A few days after meeting that author at the grocery store, I emailed her to say how much I enjoyed our conversation — and to dig around about that file of Gazette typos. Sure enough, she was able to retrieve the clippings dating back to the spring of 2018; she scissored, sequenced, scanned and sent them to me. And sure enough, there was a clipping from our “A Look Back” column, under the heading “25 Years Ago,” referring to “Anti-Semiotic graffiti found this week on a chalkboard at the University of Massachusetts.” The proof was in the proofreading.

Still, even the greatest writers make mistakes. Although she told me at the grocery store that the typo situation at the Gazette has improved since I came on as editor, in an email the author sent accompanying the scanned clippings, she wrote: “Things have definitely not improved.”

I felt lousy that whole morning until I realized that maybe — could it be? — the “not” was not meant to be.

“OMG, that ‘not’ was a worse typo than any of the ones I sent you! Very much unintended. Sorry!” she wrote back immediately. “I’ll take my error as a form of courtesy provided by my unconscious: an illustration that the clipper was every bit as fallible as the clipped.”

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