News & Features » Miscellany

The copy editor two-step

Rosie Right

As many of you know, Rosie doubles here at Style as a copy editor. To many people, I am sure, the job of copy editor sounds dreary and dull - and it can be at times. But it is also a job fraught with dangers like the careless failure to catch a wrong name or spelling. Both of these horrors have happened to Rosie to her public embarrassment.

Still, copy editing can be fun and it requires a flexible turn of mind. One needs to know something about the grammatical "rules," the breaking of which can mar the fastidious reader's enjoyment of an otherwise interesting story. Some of these are complex and there always seems to be controversy about them. Style subscribes to a very useful little newsletter that often discusses the problems that a copy editor faces, and in its recent issue the editor discusses one of these:

A copyeditor sent in a sentence:

"Then another marriage failed. I began to wonder if the problem were genetic." The correspondent asks:

"If that sentence had appeared in copy I was working on I would have changed were to was, because the problem is not necessarily contrary to fact. Would I have been right?"

The newsletter answers firmly "You're right were is wrong. The indicative was, not the subjective were, would have been correct.

"The American Heritage Book of English Usage says a `traditional rule' states that you shouldn't use the subjunctive mood after verbs such as as or wonder in if clauses that express indirect questions, `even if the content of the question is presumed to be contrary to fact…

"Let's remember two things:

"1. A clause introduced by if doesn't necessarily require the subjunctive mood. In your example, if is a substitute for whether

"2. When a verb such as ask or wonder precedes if, you more than likely need the indicative mood."

In a rapid change of pace, after puzzling over this, a copy editor is required to deal with the quick change in the English language. This change, stimulated by the global and technological economy, is so swift that, according to Newsweek, Microsoft "runs a regular column in its in-house newsletter explaining the latest jargon." Some recent examples:

"Fiber media: Materials published in `hopelessly archaic medium of paper.'

"Catering wasps: People who eat the catered food while a meeting is still underway…"

Will these words permanently enter the language? Should the copy editor let them pass? Who knows?

Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825), letter (1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220), fax (355-9089) or e-mail

Add a comment