Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Editor, control your crotchets

Editors are human beings, though you may have been told otherwise, as susceptible to idiosyncratic preferences about language as anyone else. Even the most scrupulous can be tempted to impose a crotchet on a text being edited. 

One of mine is to despise the term locals in writing about the members of a community. It is vaguely condescending, the eminent journalist looking from great height at the inhabitants going about their little lives. It echoes the expression local yokels. So I regularly change locals to local residents

But it is a slippery slope in choosing when to impose a personal preference, and, as usual, it is easier to spot a problem when someone else is doing it. We had a copy editor at The Sun who thought that the word how should not precede a clause. He would routinely change "how the copy editor approaches the text" to "the way the copy editor approaches the text." Where he got this notion I cannot say; it does not come up in any of the manuals I have consulted, nor does it achieve a significant gain in clarity. 

This is dangerous, principally because editors tend to find what they are looking for. If you have a set of arbitrary preferences in your head, you will find all that occur, at the hazard of missing something important. I wrote the other day about copy desk busywork, and the unreflective imposition of personal preferences is another example of time-wasting edits. 

So I try to examine my own preferences, consult with linguists, lexicographers, and usage experts to see whether there is justification. In the case of locals, I can explain my reasoning if challenged by the writer or another editor. In other cases, I can appeal to authority, such as Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins or Garner's Modern English Usage

You do not have enough time in editing to do everything that you need to do, much less everything that you would like to do. You need to examine very carefully how you are spending that time. 


  1. I agree in principle. But wouldn't "residents" be sufficient in most contexts? Every time I'm referred to as a "local artist," it makes me cringe because it is limiting and condescending.

  2. And when I say “condescending” above, I also think of a New York Times anecdotal lede when a reporter outside Manhattan writes as if they are an anthropologist dropped into the Amazon.

  3. Were an editor to change my writing from "locals" to "local residents" I would classify it in the large category of pointless but harmless changes. It is completely normal English to use an adjective as a noun, including when referring to people. It is a recent idiosyncrasy to consider this somehow dehumanizing. I have no problem calling myself a "local" where appropriate.

    Speaking of idiosyncrasies, your colleague's objection to "how" preceding a clause is exactly how these language myths start. This one has not reached critical mass, but were he to get into the usage game and push the idea, it easily could. Many of the standard peeves began exactly this way.