An Unexpected Truth About Copy Editors and Consistency

Don’t ever tell a copy editor that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. To begin with, anyone who knows the context of that chestnut knows that Emerson wasn’t thinking about whether website has a hyphen when he wrote it, and second, it’s rarely a good idea to make your copy editor think you’re an ignorant jerk. Third, whatever the stereotype, copy editors do draw a line when it comes to consistency, even to the point of having to explain to a writer sometimes why consistency is not a goal in a given instance.

Let’s say I add a comma after “In 1945” because it’s followed by a parenthetical clause: In 1945, as the story goes, Grandma ate eggshells to keep her bones strong. So the writer helpfully adds a comma after every “In 19xx” in the manuscript to take care of my “inconsistency.” No harm done, other than the writer’s waste of time and my annoyance at being thought incompetent. (And yes, I confess to trotting out the “consistency is not a goal” defense now and then when a writer’s query sounds more like “you missed a spot.”)

Ego aside, it’s easy enough to hunt out and fix lapses, true or imagined, while a project is still in manuscript form. But if a writer starts spotting such perceived blemishes in typeset pages, expensive corrections will need justification.

Here are a few instances where consistency is optional or even misguided—the kinds of issues you should discuss with your copy editor before “fixing”:

  • Commas before and or or: He never drank gin or vodka or milk. She longed to adopt a pet—a dog, or a cat, or a squirrel.
  • Tenses of verbs introducing quotations (Aristotle says, Ringo wrote).
  • Commas before too: I’m going along, too. Me too.
  • Semicolons in complex lists.
  • End punctuation across multiple lists.

Some lapses are worth correcting when they cause confusion or inconvenience:

  • Changes of tense midsentence
  • Same-level headings styled differently
  • Names spelled more than one way
  • Inconsistent alphabetizing
  • More than one abbreviation for the same term
  • An author listed first-name-first in a bibliography

At The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A, writers frequently ask questions about consistency in terms of “always” or “never”: Is First Lady always capitalized? Is it true that you should never put a comma after yet? But anyone who reads or writes for a living knows that there are always exceptions, depending on syntax, intentions, audience.

Regional consistency—that is, when stylings within eyeshot of each other conform—is often the more practical goal, mainly for aesthetic reasons. Harrowing through a manuscript to add a comma after every introductory date? Let’s leave that to the hobgoblins.

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