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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, June 22, 2008

If you are like I, you are pretty sick of reading articles about how the financially-troubled newspaper industry is making desperation budget cutting moves: Downsizing its products, laying off staff, buying prostitutes for advertisers, and so forth. But believe me, you'd be even sicker of it if you were INSIDE a typical American newsroom these days, where it's sometimes hard to hear over the 200 decibel background drone of human whining.

One frequent newsroom complaint is that they are cutting back drastically in the use of copyeditors. It's true, but I for one am not complaining. I say good riddance.

The era of the copy editor is gone. Copyeditors were once an important part of the journalism process, back when journalists weren't as educated as they are now. Back then, your typical reporter was named 'Scoop" and he was a semi-literate cigar-smoking, fannie-pinching drunk with bad teeth in a wrinkled suit and a card that said PRESS stuck in the hat-band of his fedora, and they'd generate their stories by bribing sources, pistol-whipping people into talking, eavesdropping from inside closets, etc. A reporter was hired for cheek and muscle, not their writing skill, so you needed an extra layer of editing.

Copy editors were fine-tuners, fixing basic but important things that a first line of editing might'nt catch: Typos, errors in facts, spelling, syntax, punctuation, clarity, word usage, style, parallelism, and not letting sentences run on. They would also bear principle responsibility for headlines, photo captions, story jump lines, as well as catching the occasional, inadvertent cultural insensitivity. Because the job requires patience, maturity, intelligence, attention to detail, and an extremely sedentary workday, fat old Jewish ladies have often made good copyeditors.

But nowadays, things have changed. "Scoop" is gone. Young reporters are all named "P. Laurence Butterfield Jr." and they arrive at their first newspaper job fresh-faced and competent, straight from New Haven, Conn., with their high-faluting Princeton educations. They don't need copyeditors.

This is a true fact: I'm writing this column the very week after dozens of copy editors left my newspaper through an early retirement buyout, and I have noticed no difference at all whatsoever in the quality, accuracy

CONTINUED ON PAGE 17

or readability of the product.

The inessentialness of copy editors is underscored by the advent of sophisticated spellchecking systems which have introduced a hole new level of error-free proofreading. No longer can we say that the editor's penis mightier than the sword. The sword's main foe is a computer now, and the computer is up to to the task.

But nowadays, things have changed. "Scoop" is gone. Young reporters are all named "P. Laurence Butterfield Jr." and they arrive at their first newspaper jobs fresh-faced and competent, straight from New Haven, Conn., with their high-faluting Princeton educations. They don't need copyeditors.

Truth to tell, I feel badly for all copy editors whom, I'm afraid, will suddenly find themselves out of a job. Time has past them by, however, efeated the Red Sox 6-5 in extra innings and it doesn't make sense for us to weep for copyeditors anymore than it makes sense for us to lament the replacement of bank tellers with automated ATM machines.

So to all my former copyediting colleagues, I wish them a soft landing. Finally, I'd like to give particular shoutouts to my friends Pat Meyers and Bill O'Brien, two longtime copyeditors for the Washington Post who took the early retirement: We'll miss ya, guys, even if we didn't need you all that muck.

How good a copy editor would you be? See how many of the 57 errors of fact, grammar, syntax and style in this column you can catch, and then read the corrections below.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com.

Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.

CORRECTIONS

Here are the errors in fact, grammar, syntax and style that a good copy editor would have caught.

Paragraph One: Six errors.

Opening line should begin "if you are like me," not "like I."

No hyphen in "financially troubled."

"Downsizing" should be lower case.

"Budget-cutting" should have a hyphen.

Syntax requires moving "desperation" after "budget-cutting."

"200-decibel" should have a hyphen.

Paragraph Two: Four errors.

"They" has no antecedent; should read "publishers."

"Copy editors" is two words.

The phrase "I, for one," needs two added commas.

Paragraph Three: Eleven errors.

"Copy editors" should be two words.

"Scoop" has an incorrect open quotation mark.

Comma needed after Scoop.

"Semiliterate" has no hyphen.

Comma needed after "semiliterate."

Should be "and wearing a wrinkled suit" to correct impression that it's his teeth in the suit.

It's "fanny," not "fannie."

"Hatband" has no hyphen.

HE would generate HIS stories, not "they" and "their."

"His" writing skills, not "their."

Paragraph Four: Six errors

"Mightn't," not "might'nt."

"Typos" should be lowercase.

"And not letting sentences run on" is bad parallelism."

"Principal," not "principle."

"Copy editors," not "copyeditors."

Grotesque cultural insensitivity in the line about Jewish women.

Paragraph Five: Four errors.

A comma is needed after "Jr."

It's "highfalutin," not high faluting.

Yale is in New Haven, not Princeton.

Copy editors is two words.

Paragraph Six: Two errors

"True fact" is redundant.

"At all whatsoever" is redundant.

"Continued" line is an error: One error.

Paragraph Seven: Six errors.

"Inessentialness" is not a word.

"Spell-checking" is hyphenated.

"That" have introduced, not "which."

"Whole," not "hole."

"Pen is" not "penis."

There is an extra "to" in the last sentence.

Paragraph Eight: One error.

The entire paragraph is repeated from above. Since it will not be individually copyedited again, this counts as one error only.

Paragraph Nine: Nine errors.

"Badly" should be "bad."

"Who," not "whom."

"Jobs," not "job."

"Passed," not "past."

There is errant baseball type included.

"Copy editors" are two words.

"Any more" should be two words.

"Automated" and "machines" are both redundancies.

Paragraph Ten: One error.

It is upside-down.

Paragraph Eleven: Eight errors.

"Copy editing" is two words.

Wish "you" a soft landing, not "them."

"Shout-outs" has a hyphen.

"Myers," not "Meyers."

"O'Brian," not "O'Brien."

"Copy editors" is two words.

"The" Washington Post, not "the."

"Much," not "muck."

The Headline: One error.

So, we get the 59 errors enumerated above, plus one more, to total 60: The final error is that we said there were only 57 errors.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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