Copy Editing Commandment #10: Thou Shalt Not Make Arrests in the Name of the Grammar Police

Many readers love finding mistakes in copy. They think, “How could the powers-that-be let such doozies slip by unnoticed?” Historically, publishers were the gatekeepers of disseminated knowledge, so identifying their errors allowed us plebes to feel like we had the upper hand for a change — or at least to feel like we were just as intelligent as the intelligentsia. Nowadays, publishers are slashing costs, and a well copy edited newspaper, for instance, is tough to find. This hasn’t slowed the influx of  letters to the editor about perceived copy editing mistakes, however.

But a good editor doesn’t engage in one-upmanship. We apply our knowledge to a text in service to the author, publisher, and readers, and we would do a disservice to the profession if we let the letter of the law take precedence over the spirit of the law, er, language, rather. Although the correctness of some decisions can be argued, the fact is that many of our so-called rules are mere conventions adopted to make production easier. (It’s easy to forget that typefaces were originally made up of actual physical blocks with the accompanying issues of space, mechanics, and wear and tear. Decisions about punctuation, for example, were sometimes made to facilitate the placement of blocks.)

So fear not, writers everywhere: We editors are not snickering at your lack of knowledge of the “rules.” We may be detail-oriented, but we aren’t the grammar police. We’ll leave that up to good old-fashioned newspaper readers.

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