Dumb Copy Editing Survives

Once, when I was younger, I was (you’ll find this hard to imagine) somewhat abrasive, and I openly despised copy editors and all their kith and kin. I had formed the impression that they are all irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.

They would unsplit infinitives that I had split for good reason; they would reflexively change since to because even if I had deliberately avoided the latter because of an unwanted semi-rhyme; they would change which to that in cases where I had specifically decided that the former sounded better.

And colleagues had told me stories of astonishingly dim-witted interventions. Like the person who altered all the verbatim transcripts of interviews with illiterate peasants in a sociology monograph, correcting them from colloquial to educated written academic English. And (a truly wonderful piece of arrogance) the editor who changed “if and only if” to mere “if” throughout a mathematically informed text on formal syntax and wrote “REDUNDANT!” rather pompously in the margin. (Ask your logic or mathematics colleagues about that one.)

I hated copy editors. I wanted them gone from the earth.

I have mellowed. I learned over time that there are excellent copy editors who use intelligence about subject matter as well as syntax to improve my work. I got the credit for their intelligence. Leigh Mueller, who dealt with the 1,860 pages of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, should have won a medal. Likewise Anne Harding (who has done wonderful but anonymous work on many Cambridge University Press books) and Anne Mark (who copy-edited the technical journal Linguistic Inquiry for 42 years).

John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun (known for the blog You Don’t Say) has done lots of copy-editing and a great deal of smart writing about language besides. The Chronicle’s own Heidi Landecker edits this blog and often saves us contributors not just from violations of  New York Times style but also from factual errors, editing slips, and inconsistencies of content.

However, copy-editing stupidity is not extinct. In an article headlined “The Prehistory of Us” in the Review section of The Wall Street Journal (May 2–3, 2015, C1–C2; read it here), Matt Ridley wrote this sentence about DNA evidence for rapid human dispersal, recent evolutionary change, and interbreeding with indigenous populations:

In short, we are none of us natives or purebred.

In the construction he chose, a noun phrase like none of us after a plural subject and an auxiliary verb functions semantically as if it were a quantifier on the subject:

  • They are all of them innocent means “All of them are innocent”;
  • You should both of you stay here means “Both of you should stay here”;
  • We are none of us natives or purebred means “None of us are natives or purebred.”

Crucially, the extra noun phrase is not a parenthetical aside; it is integrated into the clause. It’s completely unlike the parenthetical appositive in The two boys, both of them, were speechless. There, the parenthetical and the commas flanking it could be omitted without changing what the sentence entails. And the parenthetical could be moved to the end: The two boys were speechless, both of them.

But an unidentified editor at The Wall Street Journal based a pull-out quote on Ridley’s sentence (Page C1; it’s not there in the online version), adapting the text to give a sense of the article’s theme, and in a piece of truly brainless tampering added a pair of commas, yielding this gibberish:

Powerful new techniques of genetic analysis are showing that we are, none of us, natives or purebred.

I jumped as if stung by a bee. I happened to be reading it at the breakfast table in the home of the wonderful Jan Freeman, writer of the blog Throw Grammar From the Train and formerly a columnist at The Boston Globe as well as an editor. I spluttered and showed her the offending pull-quote. She smiled and said languidly that she had spotted it straight away and wondered if I would. You bet I did!

What is so terrible about the mutilation is that the phrase the unknown editor turned into a parenthetical is a negative quantifier. It negates the clause, and without that negation the or cannot be interpreted correctly. After all, We are natives or purebred says we have at least one or the other of those properties; We aren’t natives or purebred says we have neither. And We are none of us natives or purebred is synonymous with the latter.

So beware: Old-fashioned mechanical copy-mangling still occurs. Ceaseless vigilance is necessary for authors who want to avoid having gibberish put into their mouths. I’m just glad that editorial carelessness this heinous is relatively rare.

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