• Jeff Fox: Word nerds in short supply

  • This is the story of a disappearing species, the American newspaper copy editor.

    • email print
  • This is the story of a disappearing species, the American newspaper copy editor.
    These are, or were, the people who get carried away with “who,” “whom,” “that,” and “which.” They fret about whether the Web is capitalized (yes, until the high priests at the Associated Press decide otherwise) or whether Iowa is abbreviated (no, never, unless you’re among those heathens at the U.S. Postal Service with their brutish two capitalized letters for each state).
    These are the people, heaven help them, who think adverbs still matter. The river rises more quickly, not faster.
    These are the scolds every newsrooms needs. They polish news copy, lay out pages and write headlines that sing. None of us, no, none of us will ever top “Headless body in topless bar,” though we all hope to not be that person who, in the rush of deadline, writes “Red tape holds up bridge.”
    These people were promised, well, they were promised nothing, but their journalism school professors implied they could hope for careers toiling in anonymity, doing the small but vital things to make the paper better, working long hours and never getting their relatives to understand why they had to work holidays. Believe me, the relatives never understand. And they earned squat.
    Newspapers, of course, have been taking a meat ax to copy desks for years. The one trend on which this hidebound industry was at the forefront has been downsizing.
    No, not a meat ax, the last copy editor mutters as she cleans out her desk. That’s a cliché, and not a good one. So is downsizing. Find a better metaphor. There are, after all, plenty of fish in the sea.
    Occasionally a copy editor who’s had enough will assemble a list of seven deadly grammatical sins to avoid or a maybe dozen deadly clichés and pass this around the newsroom in the earnest hope that some good will come of it. If he has the time, a harried reporter might fire back something about the pot calling the kettle black.
    My own favorite list comes out every year from Lake Superior State University in Michigan. For decades, it has published a lighthearted list of words to be “banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.” The 2012 list includes “the new normal,” “man cave” and “ginormous.” I have to say none of those would be terribly missed. The whole list is at www.lssu.edu/banished/
    I have in the past submitted my own thoughts, and a couple have snuck in, but that was long ago, and who has the time anymore? Besides, we fought and lost over “proactive,” and I’ve never quite gotten over it. I just wait and see what they post on Jan. 1 (generally the slowest news day of the year, by the way – these folks aren’t dumb).
    Page 2 of 2 - What would I submit? It seems “fiscal cliff” will be the year’s runaway winner, though “double down,” “narrative” and “going viral” – already a 2011 honoree – will be strong contenders. I would also stress that “bottom line” is not a verb, “innovate” is not even a word and I’m still a little fuzzy on just what “analytics” is supposed to mean, other than expressing the idea of something pretentious and beyond the grasp of the unevolved.
    These are only the low-hanging fruit, yet another cliché we are well advised to avoid like the plague. As I say, there are fewer copy editors around to stop the insanity, so most of it flows into the newspaper, along with misused abbreviations and the occasional uncapitalized Internet. Horrors.
    That person you see sitting at Starbucks muttering and angrily marking the paper with a red pen as her coffee grows cold, well, that person used to have a job.
    Jeff Fox promises his Twitter followers that he’s entertaining and informative. He’s @Jeff_Fox. Reach him at 816-350-6313 or jeff.fox@examiner.net.

    Comments are currently unavailable on this article

      Events Calendar