The food processor of copy editing

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In my recent exchange with John McIntyre, I matched his jocular aside about the meat grinder of linguistic scholarship with my own little joke about the food processor of copy-editing. By chance, this morning's mail brought a note from Helen Dewitt, mentioning that her Paperpools post "Cormac McCarthy & the semi-colon" (8/17/2007) has just been reprinted at Art Nouveau, "with an illustration, no less". It's great fun to read, with or without the illustration, though it was obviously not at all fun to live.

(Of course, his has nothing at all to do with John's work to keep errors out of his newspaper, and almost nothing to do with his responsibility to impose a house style. A newspaper is not a novel.)


  1. danthelawyer said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

    You know, the funny thing about that piece by DeWitt is that the punctuation in it is so unconventional (by American standards) that it's hard to read!

  2. John McIntyre said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

    At The Baltimore Sun, we prefer to think of our desk as the Cuisinart of copy editing.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    John: At The Baltimore Sun, we prefer to think of our desk as the Cuisinart of copy editing.

    Well, I was trying to avoid that product-placement vibe. But I agree, "Cuisinart" scans better.

  4. CNH said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    I notice also that Helen DeWitt uses a capitol letter after a colon – 'he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation'.

    I think this is a matter you've written on before: surely lower case?

    [myl: Geoff Pullum wrote about this under the heading "Colon rage" (3/24/2008). He suggested tentatively that the general pattern seems to be to use a capital letter when the post-colonic material is an independent clause, as it is in the case you cite. Geoff also suggested that those who get bothered about "this rather trivial topic … should consider whether it's time to switch to decaffeinated". ]

  5. John McIntyre said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

    Many U.S. manuals say that it is permissible, or even required, to capitalize the first word of an independent clause that follows a colon:

  6. Steve Harris said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

    I'm a mathematician, and I write technical articles with lengthy proofs and other discussions. It is encumbent on a mathematician to write as clearly as possible, to enable another mathematician to follow the the long chains of reasoning; this does not mean supplying all the details (that would make any work encyclopedic in length), but anticipating how much help the reader is likely to need in going from point A to point B and giving enough sign posts along the way to enable smooth progress.

    My personal style includes extensive use of colons to introduce explanatory passages. This can take the form of a short helping statement:

    "X follows from Y: for otherwise, the world would end."

    Or it can take the form of an extended argument:

    "X follows from Y: For suppose we assume Y and not X. Then from Y we get Z. But not X implies not Z, a contradiction."

    It appears to be that the house style of my favorite publisher, Institute of Physics (in UK) is to have as few colons as possible and never to capitalize the word following a colon. I am forever having to make corrections: If the initial word of a sentence following a colon is uncapitalized, the reader is led to read that sentence as the whole of the explanatory passage signaled by the colon. But if what I intended was the entire balance of the paragraph to be the explanatory passage, then that initial word needs to be capitalized, for the sense of the whole structure to be correctly understood.

    As in the passage above: It takes both sentences following the colon to elucidate why I am forever making corrections. (But I'd not have complained if, in this paragraph, the "It" were corrected to "it".)

    At least IOP enables PDF for make corrections electronically–no white-out!

  7. Nicholas Clayton said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 3:30 am

    As the husband of a novelist all this is wearily familar. May I add the following from a fine writer, the late Joan Aiken (daughter of Conrad, another fine writer).

    May/June 2004 in 'The Author' – the journal of The Society of Authors in the UK]

    Jane Aiken Hodge writes: this is a copy of a draft letter found on my sister Joan Aiken's desk after she died in January. She had been working on, and fuming over the copy edit of her last book, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, for her American publisher. I do hope you will consider publishing it as a memorial to her and a comfort to the rest of us:
    Dear Editor,
    I suppose this may be regarded as a cry of despair. I'm talking about the re-punctuation and rearrangement of my text, which leaves me in a state of bewilderment.
    I am not blaming the editor. I am sure she is a nice, well-meaning girl, just out of college, filled to the brim with grammar and syntax, dying to show what she knows. Also – like a policeman who has to make arrests in order to get promotion – she has to show pages all covered with those green and blue marks, or she will never get on to the upper echelons of the firm.
    But why do this to me? I have been writing books for the last thirty years. Does it never occur to a single member of staff that I use the words I choose? That I really do not want them all changed about by an energetic eighteen-year-old who intends to show that she is earning her salary? That I have thought quite a number of times about it before I put down ‘"Hark at the wind," shivered George’ and so have not the least wish to see it changed to ‘"Listen to the wind," said George with a shiver’?
    What it amounts to is that each book has to be revised and rewritten an extra time; once, twice, or however many times I do it before being sent off to the publisher, and then a further and bitterly resented time-wasting session of setting back all the editor's officious little changes.
    What in hell's name would they do with James Joyce? Or Shaw who had his own views about punctuation? Or Jane Austen, who had a very idiosyncratic habit with dashes?
    Just why, after sixty-five books published, should I have to submit to a teenage tyrant who wants to change all my thats to whiches, all my each others, after a lot of thought, to one anothers, and takes it upon herself to disapprove of the name I have given to my heroine, so every time this comes up she suggests an alternative? Why?

  8. language hat said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    Nabokov had this problem with the New Yorker, and had to both threaten to withhold his stories and enlist Edmond Wilson (a friend of the editors) to intervene to get them to lay off. He had to do this repeatedly. As an editor myself, I feel that this kind of mutilation of literary writing brings dishonor to the profession, and I wish editors in general had a better sense of when to change, when to query, and when to recognize that the author has their own style and back off.

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

    Well, if we're talking about the 'New Yorker' we ought to mention Thurber's comment on the editor's predilection for commas: |A reader once asked James Thurber why he had put a comma after the word "dinner" in this sentence: "After dinner, the men went into the living room." Thurber, a comma minimalist, blamed the New Yorker's commaphilic editor, Harold Ross: "This particular comma was Ross' way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up."

    Your take on the use of capitalization after colons is exactly the same as mine, which is expressed in the article of Pullum's that Liberman linked to.

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