During last week’s ACES conference, Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, shared some changes to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and online dictionaries. As he wrote in a 2013 tweet, “Most English speakers accept the fact that the language changes over time, but don’t accept the changes made in their own time.”
Some of the changes seem innocuous enough: bestseller, email, voicemail, and other terms are losing their hyphens and being closed up.
But one word caused the room to gasp. Can you spot it in this photo from attendee Maxine Mulvey?
— Maxine Mulvey (@maxinemulvey) April 27, 2018
That’s right: copyeditor is now one word.
Many editors reacted the way Lexi McPike did:
— Lexi McPike (@leximcpike) April 27, 2018
Here at Copyediting, however, we say that it’s about time. Wendalyn Nichols made the decision for our publication back in 2007.
Under Nichols’ leadership, Copy Editor became Copyediting, starting with our October–November 2007 issue. It was a twofold change. Her decision to switch from the actor to the action reflected a change that was emerging at the time and still exists today: Many people who copyedit are not, in fact, copyeditors. And many copyeditors do a lot more than copyedit.
But why did we lose the space?
In her article “The Board Responds to Copyediting,” Nichols explained her thinking and the Editorial Advisory Board’s reaction.
She acknowledged that while there was a trend toward closed spellings, they weren’t “overwhelmingly preferred.” At that time, mainstream dictionaries did not agree on whether copyeditor should be opened or closed: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) favored the open spelling, while American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) and The New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd ed.) favored the closed spelling.
The style guides were no better. AP Stylebook and The Wall Street Journal’s style guide preferred copy editor, following the lead of their house dictionary (Webster’s New World). The Chicago Manual of Style (15th), however, parted from its house dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, to adopt copyeditor—something Garner’s Modern American Usage (2nd ed.) advocated for as well.
Copyediting’s house dictionary was (and still is) AHD, but Nichols’ decision went deeper than following the house dictionary. “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,” she wrote. “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.”
Given the topic of our newsletter, Nichols’ decision seems wise. How many instances of copyedit, copyediting, and copyeditor appear in each issue? I’m always in favor of style rules that ease the editor’s tasks while protecting the reader’s need for clarity.
Nichols shared her decision with the advisory board, which consisted of 12 editing and language experts, including Bryan Garner; Paul Martin of The Wall Street Journal; Merrill Perlman of The New York Times; Barbara Wallraff, Copy Editor editor emeritus; and Bill Walsh of The Washington Post. Three members were against the closed spelling in all forms, two were against copyeditor but OK with copyediting, and six supported all the closed spellings (Merrill Perlman was unavailable for a response). Bill Walsh was the most outspoken, penning a long response that we published in the December 2007–January 2008 issue.
“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,” he wrote. To Walsh, copyediting broke down as cop–yediting.
“To copyedit is not necessarily the same thing as to edit copy,” he continued. “We do a specific kind of editing and we do it for a living, and we should proudly claim our own identity.”
I can see his point about being proud of our identity, but the lines between different levels of editing are often blurred, particularly now that digital publishing has upset the publishing process so much. Ask six copyeditors to define copyediting and you’ll likely get six different answers. Even Editors Canada’s well-thought-out definitions are not universal, even in their home country.
Editors will continue to have their preference regarding one word or two, and there’s nothing wrong with preferences. But good editors must continue to do what’s best for the text and the audience, taking advice from the assigned resources to make educated decisions.
Yet for those in the one-word camp (including yours truly), this feels like a well-earned acknowledgement.
Toward the end of her article, Nichols wrote, “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.”
One down, one to go.