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"Itchy Fingered Copy Editors"

by George Selgin June 12th, 2013 10:57 pm

That's the phrase Leland Yeager likes to use to describe those persons in the publishing industry who, given the task of correcting errors in an author's page proofs, or of making such changes as are dictated by a house style, can't resist otherwise "improving" the author's writing by changing his or her grammar, punctuation, and word choices so as to make them more consistent with the copy-editor's own notions as to what constitutes good prose, or what a writer really means.

Yeager himself, I recall, once became particularly irate at discovering that, whereas in a typescript he'd referred to James Buchanan as a "theorist," in print he'd instead called him a "terrorist." Presumably Yeager's copy editor had not heard of the prize-winning economist, but had heard of a bomb-throwing person of the same (or similar) name.

I've also had more than my share of run-ins with the itchy-fingered bunch--or so I imagine, perhaps because (like Yeager) I'm fussy (o.k., anally retentive) when it comes to my prose. In fact, although I dream about one day managing to get something published without a single typo--let alone some unwanted editor's "improvement"--it hasn't happened yet. That's one thing I like about blogging: there's no one to mess around with your prose, and you can always go back and fix the boo-boos you make yourself.

One sort of itchy-fingered editing that I find especially galling is the sort that happens when an editor assumes that he or she knows more about my subject than I do. It's not that that's impossible. But the odds are agin' it. Many years ago, for example, in writing about Chile's free banking episode, I referred in several places to Frank W. Fetter's writing's on Chilean monetary policy. But when the published version arrived in the mail, I discovered to my surprise and dismay that "Frank W." had become "Frank A." How come? It happens that the publication was an "Austrian" one, and that Austrian economists, or some at any rate, are rather fond of Frank Albert Fetter's writings on the theory of capital and interest. So am I, in fact. But whereas the person who copy-edited my article apparently had never heard of Frank Whitson Fetter, we monetary economists know that other Fetter pretty well, since he is a rather highly-regarded historian of monetary thought, who just happens to have been the capital-theorist's son.

That sort of editorial meddling is, of course, annoying because the author gets the blame for not getting his facts straight, when in fact they were perfectly straight until some smart-aleck bent them. But for those of us who are fussy about our prose, changes that don't alter any facts are hardly less mortifying. Not long ago, for instance, I was starting to go over the galleys for my and John Turner's JLE article "Strong Steam, Weak Patents" when, to my surprise, I read the word "indicated." Now, "indicated" is one of those words I go to great lengths to avoid, unless I'm referring to a dial of some sort. Yet here was I, about to go to press having (apparently) written that something other than a dial--I think it was James Watt--had "indicated" this or that. Naturally I turned to the typescript, and found, sure enough, that I'd written, not "indicated" but "meant." At that point, my surprise gave way to horror: the JLE, I realized, have got themselves an itchy-fingered copy editor! As I feared, my prose (I say "mine" because I was responsible for writing-up the article) had been altered throughout, without my consent and without the slightest indication of where changes had been made. And, believe me, the changes were all of them the sort one might expect from an editor who thinks that "indicate" is better than "meant."* So, after calling the managing editor and "indicating" my feelings to her, I spent the better part of two days seeking out the changes and restoring the original text. Alas, one change at least got away, resulting in an incoherent sentence. To this day I still can't bear to look at the published version. (That the JLE's typographic design is also one of the worst I've ever seen doesn't help.)

A preference for stilted words over their more natural counterparts is just one of the many foibles of bad copy-editors at academic journals and also, of course, of bad academic writers themselves. Another is a peculiar aversion to the word "I," even when its use is motivated, not by an author's lack of modesty, but by his or her desire to keep things honest. (The habit of assuming that "I" should never appear in an academic work seems especially ingrained among the natural scientists, who no doubt find the rule easy to insist upon at least in part because they seldom write anything except with the help of half a dozen coauthors.) I had a run in with an editor on this issue when, near the beginning of a long article, I wrote "I will assume... ." The editor replaced it with "It is assumed... ." I queried back, "Assumed by whom, if not by me? By God?" As I'm an atheist, and didn't wish in any event to pretend that I'd consulted any higher power concerning what was or wasn't to be assumed in the course of arguing my thesis, I refused to accept the passive-voice alternative. But the editor was no less unwilling to let that dreaded "I" in. Finally we settled on "Assume... ." And none too happily, so far as I was concerned, since I don't much like ordering my readers around. ("Let us assume" would have been a better compromise, in retrospect.)

Itchy-fingered copy-editors seem to imagine that someone's writing can always be improved by making it conform to strict rules like "never use the first person." But the truth is rather that most of the rules that such editors are especially likely to be sticklers for--"never split an infinitive," "every sentence must have a subject, object, and verb," "never end a sentence with a preposition," and so on--are just so many hollow superstitions that conscientious writers know better than to never break, and up with which self-respecting writers never put. Never.

Not surprisingly, given their preference for stiff language and strict (if phony) rules, itchy-fingered copy-editors are not people who can safely be assumed to have any sense of humor. I found that out the hard way when, in making corrections to the proofs for Good Money, I drew up the usual list of page numbers, desired changes, and my reasons for making the changes (e.g., typesetting error; error in manuscript). In one instance, I asked that a word be changed simply because I had thought of a better one. So under "reason" I wrote simply, "(le mot juste)". I leave it to you to imagine my reaction when I found those same words, parentheses and all, inserted in the published book!** (Did I mention that itchy-fingered copy-editors don't seem to know any French?)

Am I suggesting, then, that copy-editors ought never to try to improve an author's prose, or to correct what they believe to be errors of fact? Not at all. What they ought never to do is to make such "corrections" without letting an author know what they're up to, and hence without giving him or her a chance to reject the changes. Good copy-editors get this. The itchy-fingered sort ought to be doused with calamine lotion or Benadryl until they get it too.

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*If you think so too, then you probably prefer "disseminate" to "spread," "utilize" to "use," "feasible" to "possible," and "beverage" to "drink," in which case, I'm sorry to have to tell you, it is evident that you are not human at all but some sort of infernal machine, and as such not to be reasoned with.
**They didn't make it, thank goodness, into either the second printing or the paperback.

5 Responses to “"Itchy Fingered Copy Editors"”

  1. avatar pmjones says:

    Your article, especially the footnote, reminds me of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

    https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

    I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

    I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

    Here it is in modern English:

    Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

    This is a parody, but not a very gross one.

    • avatar George Selgin says:

      Thanks for the flattering comparison, pm. It has been a while since I read Orwell's essay, and reading the passages you quote I'm struck by how easily the "modern English" one might be mistaken for the abstract of an article in almost any "business" discipline journal. If there's a difference, it is that Orwell's parody isn't quite verbose enough to pass muster. Otherwise I'd be tempted to submit it to a Management Science conference to see if the paper it summarizes gets on the program! A good title might be, "The Influence of Stochastic Processes on Entrepreneurial Excess Returns: A Multinomial Logit Analysis."

  2. avatar John S says:

    Since this is a post about language, may I suggest the term "proflation" (as in "productivity-driven price deflation") to describe stable or mildly rising NGDP combined with falling prices? This contrasts nicely with stagflation (stable or falling NGDP with rising prices).

    Since such a situation would entail very high productivity gains, the positive-sounding connotation is an added bonus. Also, it avoids the negative baggage associated with any mention of "deflation."

  3. avatar Phillip Ng says:

    Very enjoyable article and the Orwell quote is especially appropriate! I fondly recall you double underlining a word* in an essay I submitted you and writing, in all capital letters, “NEVER use this word in a document you submit to me”. Fair enough, as my reader sole you were the Alpha and the Omega, but is it quite so different?

    *I believe the word was “incentivize”, but I’m not sure.

    • avatar George Selgin says:

      As you know, Phillip, the rules are different for one's teachers than for one's copy-editors, because the teachers give grades!

      In any event, "incentivise" is a word one should use only if one would also be willing to show up in public wearing nothing but a sandwich board declaring the following (front and back):

      "I don't seem to be aware of such common words as 'incite,' 'encourage,' and 'reward,' and am in any case the sort of knucklehead who assumes that more syllables are always better."

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