by Wendalyn Nichols
This article originally ran in October–November 2007 issue of Copyediting newsletter
As we moved to change the name of this newsletter from Copy Editor to Copyediting, I wrote to our board members to solicit opinions about the name change. I failed to make it clear in my initial message that we intended to spell the noun as copyeditor as well, so there were a few rounds of e-mails on the subject.
Eleven of the twelve members responded (Merrill Perlman was unavailable). Three voted against the closed spellings in all forms; two said they didn’t object to copyediting but would prefer to keep the noun spelled as copy editor; and six supported the closed spellings. The responses show how opinion is split on the matter—and not cleanly with newspaper and magazine people on one side and academic editors on the other. I’d like to share the comments from the board members here, along with my reasoning for the spelling change. As we moved to change the name of this newsletter from Copy Editor to Copyediting, I wrote to our board members to solicit opinions about the name change. I failed to make it clear in my initial message that we intended to spell the noun as copyeditor as well, so there were a few rounds of e-mails on the subject.
We begin with Bill Walsh’s firm reply: “Well, somebody has to be a spoilsport. I’m on record as finding it ironic that a profession dedicated to enhancing readability and stamping out jargon would embrace such readable-only-to-those-in-the-know letter jumbles as copyeditor and copyediting, and I still feel that way.”
Bill has written a longer piece in defense of the spellings copy-edit, copy editing, and copy editor, which we’ll publish in the next issue (to read it now, go to the Addenda section in the Subscribers Only area of Copyediting.com). His concerns are valid ones, and I know he speaks for some of you. So does Sue Blair: “I think the one-word form is difficult to read and unwieldy,” she said. “I’ll bet that if you check the mastheads of magazines that list their copy editors by that title, you’re going to find two words in almost every instance.”
Indeed, although the trend is toward the use of the closed spellings, I would not go so far as to say that the closed spellings are overwhelmingly preferred. What I’d like to do, however, is to repeat part of an answer I gave in the February–March 2006 issue to a subscriber’s question about our use of the closed spellings for the verb and the gerund:
Because of the fluidity and inconsistency of English, I try to look for patterns, and for reasons not to follow that pattern. In the case of copyedit, there’s really no underlying grammatical difference between how it behaves and the pattern of proofread and typeset:
What am I doing? I’m reading proofs. I’m editing copy. I’m setting type.
What am I doing? I’m proofreading. I’m copyediting. I’m typesetting.
What’s my job? I’m a proofreader. I’m a copyeditor. I’m a typesetter.
What do you do? I proofread. I copyedit. I typeset.
All are also still separable in certain circumstances:
Could you read these proofs for me?
Have you edited that copy yet?
They still set type the old-fashioned way.
In the case of the verb copyedit, I can’t find a reason not to follow the pattern of proofread and typeset.
I shared this passage with the board. Paul Martin replied, “I take your point about proofreaders (not proof readers) reading proofs, but the language has many such anomalies (steelmaker vs. auto maker, e.g.), and consistency of usage is the best we can strive for.” He argued that Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, and the Wall Street Journal stylebook use the open and hyphenated spellings. Since WNW is the official dictionary of the Associated Press, that makes sense. Following what dictionaries show is one type of consistency.
Both Barbara Wallraff and Cheryl Iverson argued for using the open spelling of copy editor because that’s what dictionaries show, citing Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (which gives the closed spelling for copyedit). Barbara also mentioned WNW, which gives the spelling copy-edit for the verb, although she said she could live with copyediting.
Both The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, and The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition, show the closed spellings for all forms—a fact that demonstrates how inconsistent dictionaries are. Dictionaries “provide a picture of where usage stands,” as Cheryl pointed out; I would further argue that the fact that the current editions of the major American dictionaries don’t agree shows just how dependent the editorial teams at dictionary houses are on their own data set when it comes to analyzing usage. The range of treatments in major dictionaries do indeed compose a picture—a snapshot of spelling in transition.
Consistency, then, would seem to lie in making sure one follows whatever one’s house dictionary advises. I could therefore say here that since the house dictionary of Copyediting is the AHD, we’ll be using the closed spellings from now on, and leave it at that. There’s a broader principle of consistency, however—one that I did not follow when I wrote about the choice to use copyedit.
At the time, I retained the use of the open spelling of the noun copy editor. It was, after all, the name of the newsletter, and it reflected common practice in newsrooms. I still believe there is validity to the argument that in a newsroom there is rigid role definition—desk editor, copy editor, slot editor, copy chief—and so the open spelling usefully identifies a copy editor as a type of editor. I said in my answer to the subscriber that “What type of editor are you? A copy editor” made some sense, whereas “What type of reader are you? A proof reader” was a bit silly.
English, though, doesn’t require compounds to pass the “what type of?” test consistently. Consider cheesecutter and cheesemaker, both spelled as closed compounds. “What type of cutter is that? A cheese cutter” is logical. “What kind of maker are you? A cheese maker” is not. Speechmaker is a closed compound, but speechwriter is often written as an open one; ticket-taker is hyphenated, opera singer is open. The argument that –maker is more like a generic suffix is tempting, but then what are we to make of housekeeper, hairdresser, or stockbroker? Some language mavens say that the older the compound, the more likely it is to be closed: fishmonger, lamplighter, moneylender. Yet there are fairly old compounds that are still open: claim jumper, snake charmer.
The best approach, I feel, is to try to be consistent within a given set of related terms (verb, gerund, noun) rather than splitting the baby. So either you stick with copy-edit, copy editing, and copy editor, or you go all the way and spell them all as closed compounds. Martha Spaulding agreed: “Because copyeditor matches the verb form, I think it’s the logical way to spell it.”
Some board members felt that the closed spellings were so common as to represent a non-issue, at least in book publishing. Anne McCoy commented, “We haven’t used copy editor since I’ve been at [Columbia University Press] (over 16 years). To me this is an instance of language evolving toward a simpler usage/spelling and a descriptivist, rather a prescriptivist, approach.” Anita Wolff wrote, “I also agree that the closed-up spelling is inevitable, following the broad trend to close up open and hyphenated forms. Unlike some instances (coworker) it doesn’t give rise to awkward misreading and is readily graspable.”
Marilyn Schwartz said she’d used the closed form her entire professional life, having been influenced by The Chicago Manual of Style. Then she noted something I hadn’t known: “Chicago apparently adopted these fused terms in defiance of Webster’s Collegiate, and still uses copyeditor—though the 15th edition registers a preference for “manuscript editor” as a more inclusive term.” Inclusive of whom, I wonder? Plenty of us who copyedit have never touched a book manuscript. All the more reason, I think, to rely less on the various guides and more on our own analysis of what’s going on in the language, leading by example. My small choice is one of many that is tipping the usage balance and lead to an entry for copyeditor in WNW and M-W eventually.
I close with comments from two board members who were positively enthusiastic about the change. “I’ve been hoping for this one-word version ever since joining the board,” said Bryan Garner. “It’s inevitable, and it’s what I recommend in Modern American Usage. It would be retrograde to persist in the two-word version, which can create syntactic awkwardness in all sorts of contexts.” And Carl Sessions Stepp simply said, “I think it’s terrific.”