Sunday, December 31, 2023

A chronicle of time wasted

Despite having vigorously defended the work of copy editors for decades, I concede that not all that we were called upon to perform had the best effect. Here's a recollection. 

When I began work at The Baltimore Sun in 1986, the grandees who ran the paper liked to ape The New York Times. One consequence is that The Sun, like The Times, used courtesy titles on second and subsequent reference to everyone except the long dead and notorious criminals.*

The staff understood the house style and generally followed it in local copy. But the copy desk was obliged to supply courtesy titles in wire service copy. That meant that copy editors working on national, foreign, and business copy had to supply Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., military rank, ecclesiastical titles, and the like in every Associated Press and Reuters story that came over the desk. It was busywork that may well have gone unnoticed by most readers, but it was our house style, a mark of our sober dignity. 

In the 1990s there was a short-lived vogue for consulting actual employees about how the work might be better carried out, and I heard that in the pressroom a number of suggestions came up that improved efficiency and productivity. Even the copy editors were included in this START (Sun Teams Achieving Results Together) program. 

Among the proposals the copy editors produced: Eliminate all courtesy titles, except in direct quotations and in obituaries. With a Jove-like nod, John S. Carroll, the editor, said, "Yes." And thus Sun house style remains, in secula seculorum

The Sun eliminated the copy desk in 2019, and there is no longer busywork of that kind, or work at all. 

*I digress: Determining eligibility for those two categories was a point of nearly endless discussion on the desk. 


  1. Another wonderful column. Thank you.
    Yes to abolishing busywork.
    Shame on grandees for abolishing the copy desk.
    My former newspaper grandees at the Missoulian abolished The Desk in 2014. Everything went downhill from there.
    I still subscribe to the e-edition for the two (occasionally three ) important local stories by Missoula, Montana journalists.

  2. Mr. McIntyre, we thank you!😊

  3. I have mixed feelings about house style. Providing some baseline stylistic uniformity is a good idea in principle, but in practice it lends itself to pointless busywork as you describe. To the extent that copy editing still exists, so too does busywork. Consider the Oxford comma. It can, on rare happy occasions, eliminate ambiguity. In other rare occasions it can create ambiguity. In the vast majority of cases it is irrelevant, either with no potential ambiguity in the construction or there being theoretical ambiguity that in practice is clarified by the context. One might suppose that the important job of the copy editor is not to worry about the presence or absence of the Oxford comma, but the presence or absence of genuine ambiguity. Yet I have had professional copy editors fiercely defend its importance in house style. Apparently readers will be confused by inconsistency in the Oxford comma, though not in the myriad other choices of comma usage.

    My experience of having my own writing professionally edited is that about a quarter of the changes are beneficial: clarifying ambiguities, improving infelicities, correcting errors of agreement, and so on. A small but vital number of changes are disastrous: replacing a technical word with a near (but not near enough) synonym to avoid repetition, changing a date simply out of sloppiness, etc. The rest of the changes are pointless busywork. Given the state of editing budgets, the profession would do well to get past its shibboleths and concentrate on what really matters.

  4. Respectfully, I believe the list of honorifics in the third paragraph should contain a "Ms." and one fewer "Mrs."