This article originally ran in the December 2007–January 2008 issue of Copyediting newsletter.
ASK THE EDITOR
by Wendalyn Nichols
In the previous issue (October–November 2007), I reported on the responses from our advisory board members to the newsletter’s name change and the decision to spell all forms of copyediting as closed compounds. We did not have the space to print Bill Walsh’s full response in that issue, so I am ceding part of this column to Bill for this issue.
Requiem for a Space
by Bill Walsh
When I heard that Copy Editor was becoming Copyediting, and switching to the solid usage on all forms of the term, I winced. The -ing instead of -or in the title is fine, but what happened to the space? As a board member I had to speak up, and as a copy editor and author of usage books, I already had. I’ve delighted some readers and puzzled others by referring to the “yediting of cops.” As I told my fellow board members, 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.
A majority of the other board members disagreed with me. The arguments came back: That’s the way we’ve done it within the profession for a while now. To copyedit is not necessarily the same thing as to edit copy; we do a specific kind of editing and we do it for a living, and we should proudly claim our own identity. Proofreading and typesetting are very similar terms, and they don’t have spaces. The word inevitable kept coming up, as in two-word forms inevitably becoming solid. Also inevitably, perhaps, the P-word was tossed out. If you defend an established usage against a nascent one you’re bound to be called a hoary old prescriptivist, as opposed to the pure and saintly descriptivists, who politely keep their hands off other writers’ keyboards (I’m not sure how you can be a copy editor, or a cop yeditor, without being a prescriptivist—when you enforce style you’re prescribing, whether it’s an older style or a newer one).
The first argument strikes me as the least flawed. Whereas the American Copy Editors Society is an organization made up mostly of newspaper copy editors (that’s my realm, and we invariably use the two-word form), this newsletter is read mostly by copyeditors, as those in academia, book publishing, and corporate work are more likely to call themselves. Deleting the space, then, is a move toward inclusivity—up to a point. I would argue that we should also be inclusive beyond the profession and avoid a construction that few non-publishing people have ever seen before.
It’s true, in a sense, that copy editors copy-edit copy, but it’s also true to say we edit copy, in our own copy-editing way (note that the transitive verb— copy-edit, with a hyphen—already exists). Editing can mean all sorts of things, and it’s also possible for people who aren’t copy editors to copy-edit—and, in fact, that’s the main argument for the change from -or to -ing in the newsletter’s name. A talented editor-editor’s big-picture edit could involve more copy editing than a hack’s attempt at copy editing. As for pride, that can work two ways. It’s easy to imagine a “content editor” looking down on what we do: “That’s not editing; it’s just copy editing.” Do we need to use “copyeditor” to differentiate between somebody who has that job title and somebody who just happens to be editing copy? Interesting idea for a distinction, but I’m not sure there’s a precedent. If I’m a bike rider when I pedal around the block, is Lance Armstrong a bikerider?
The next two arguments ignore a vital factor: readability. Of course it’s proofreading and typesetting, and I’ll throw in subediting (the British term for copy editing) and copyreading (an antiquated term for copy editing). But plenty of compounds far more common than copy editor have kept their spaces over the decades, even alongside parallel (but easier-to-read) one-word forms. Cab driver is often written as cabdriver, but truck driver and even taxi driver (the very same thing) are virtually never truckdriver and taxidriver. Ballplayer, as I wrote in Lapsing Into a Comma, is a legitimate word, but baseballplayer is not. Again, the same thing but just too awkward to go without the space. It’s cabdriver but taxi driver, ballplayer but baseball player, copyreader but copy editor.
Whereas copy editors copy-edit, cabdrivers don’t “cabdrive” and baseball players don’t “baseball-play,” but there are plenty of examples more to the point: It’s belly dancer and pinch hitter, not bellydancer and pinchhitter. Better yet: tap dancer. I, Mr. Awkward, am not even sure what has prevented tapdancer and tapdancing from becoming solid—they just haven’t. We prescriptivists get in trouble for trying to apply logic to a language that resists it, so here I am trying to be descriptive: Sometimes the answer to a usage question is “just because.” Do a Google search and look at the major dictionaries and you’ll find copy editor and copy editing far more often than copyeditor and copyediting. Onewordization is inevitable, except when it isn’t.
If consistency and “inevitability” are our guiding principles, then ballplayer means we must use baseballplayer, and cabdriver means we must use taxidriver and truckdriver. If we recognize that taxi driver and baseball player endure because readability matters, and that tap dancer endures just because it does, then we should let copy editors be copy editors and recognize copyeditor and copyediting as industry jargon. There are worse things than using industry jargon in an industry publication, of course, but by doing so we are missing a chance to lead by example.