Moral relativism comes to the copy desk

A question from a colleague reminds the Monitor's language columnist how often an editor's notions of 'right' and 'wrong' are grounded in specifics, not absolutes.

A question from a colleague the other day set my wheels turning, and they rolled me into a place I didn't expect to go.

She was trying to quantify editorial quality-control standards. The question was about how many errors it was "acceptable" for an editor to let pass before an issue of professional competence arose.

I was shocked at the thought of "allowing errors" – well, no, I wasn't. Insofar as writing is the product of imperfect human beings, errors will creep in.

But I was surprised at how full of gray zones the world of editing seemed in this light. Many "errors" are errors only with reference to an established style at a given publication. Call it situational copy-editing.

And a copy editor is often responsible for maintaining standards that have nothing to do with language per se but with formatting and design: headline type size, for instance, or the punctuation for "readouts" and "subheads" and other bits of text on the page.

The stylebook and the dictionary are the foundations at a publication like the Monitor. The dictionary is the guide to the words themselves – how they're spelled and used, and what they mean. The stylebook helps put the words to work: How do we refer to government bodies and other institutions? What can be abbreviated, and what needs to be spelled out? What phrases are too "loaded" to use except in quotations?

Many publications use the Associated Press stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. Many publications also have their own stylebook, used with one of these others, to address local issues, or usages involved in a given field.

On top of all this are institutional sensitivities. For instance, the local newspaper where I had my first reporting job was in a town where the training of racehorses was a big deal. Though this was never in any stylebook, it was understood that references to the socially prominent "horse crowd" needed to be handled with a certain deference. If an editor were ever to be bounced for an "error," it would have been far likelier to be one involving mention of the equestrian set than an error of subject-verb agreement or a dangling participle.

Amid all these different standards, there are broad areas of agreement but also countless points of divergence. Grammar standards continue to evolve. Dictionaries disagree on spelling, usage, and even whether a word is standard usage, informal, or slang. Some style standards call for formal organizational names; others are happy with convenient familiar short forms.

Some straight-ahead grammar issues have clear-cut right answers. "It's difficult for you and I to talk," is flat-out wrong – never mind that people say things like that millions of times every day. Still, no self-respecting editor should hesitate to change it – unless it's a direct quote. At the aforementioned first reporting job, we were given leave to "clean up" the grammar of direct quotes (in part because of concerns about offending the aforementioned "horse crowd"). I developed my own corollary to this principle, though: "Don't ever quote Bubba saying 'whom.' "

It's not that it's hard to tell good copy-editing from bad. And most professional editors have clear standards to follow and authoritative references on most issues. But the more closely I look, the more gray zones I see.

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