Copy Editors Are the Safety Net of the Publishing World


By Chip Compton

Copy editors are a bit like referees. If all goes well, you do not notice them. But when a spelling error slips by, suddenly the copy editor is front and center. In a way, the copy editor’s mistakes are more magnified than the referee’s. After all, most of us can spell — to a certain degree — but how many of us really understand the difference between pass interference and defensive holding?

But enough about arcane football rules. Have you spotted any errors in this story yet? You can thank Casey Neal for that. The venerable Britton Marketing & Design Group copy editor is working for you to maximize your enjoyment of these words. He is the representative of these prose polishers I am bringing out of the background for these next 1,000 words. It is their time to shine, but there is a flip side: If you do find a mistake, you can blame Casey (sorry, friend). I am merely the writer.*

Importance of Copy Editing

We (meaning “people who read and care about words”) know the horror stories. Mitt Romney’s campaign called for “A Better Amercia.” And even the New York Times (yes, the venerable Gray Lady!) wrote “Moron” instead of “Mormon” in a headline. These are the things that disrupt copy editors’ sleep. They are the pestering thoughts that cause questions like “Did I put that comma in the right place?” and “Did I capitalize that word?” Stress? You bet. After all, the word “public” is just one letter away from being, well, you know.

Commas are important, as they are the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Before we get too far, I should draw a small distinction between copy editing and its brethren, proofreading. Copy editing has to do with theme, style and voice. It has to do with organization and clarity. Is the writer conveying the proper message in the proper way? Proofreading is more of the nitty-gritty, so to speak. This is when spelling, grammar and punctuation are looked at very closely. It’s also when the document is judged for how it looks. Where are the line breaks? How do the leading and kerning look?

Destroy / Create

Good copy editing (and proofreading) is enjoyed by all readers. After all, when was the last time you were reading something and said, “I wish there were more mistakes in this story”? The good news is that copy editors are passionate and perfectionists. I have heard voices raised (but no fisticuffs yet) in regard to the placement of a comma. A COMMA! Yes, a comma. They are important, as they are the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Merrill Perlman, in her article “Why ‘Amercia’ Needs Copy Editors” for CNN, wrote a good description of copy editors: “Copy editors provide a safety net for a publication, catching most of the problematic stuff dropped from above. They are a curious breed: trivia experts, steeped in popular culture (helpful for pun headlines, none of which Google gets), usually voracious readers, often unappreciated.”

Perlman went on to discuss proofreading: “No one can read something he wrote as well as someone else can. Anyone who’s sent off an email beginning ‘Dead Bob’ knows that.”

And what about those documents that aren’t copy edited or proofread? In this era, when publishing usually means posting to the Internet first, things are done in a hasty fashion. It’s a different thought process. As Jen Doll explained on, “We’re just valuing some new things (like speed and quantity, in some cases) over some more traditional ones (spelling).”

Must-Have Tools and Resources

What does a copy editor need to do his job? Sara Lancaster, on her blog,, offers a list of things. If you open my drawer (when I’m not writing sterling blog copy, I do a bit of copy editing on the side), you will find sticky flags, pens of various colors (one graphic designer co-worker felt red was too harsh, so he gets tangerine or violet) and a magnifying glass.

If you open a different drawer, you’ll find granola bars, almonds and oatmeal. Hey, a copy editor has to eat, right?

I know what you are thinking: What about the style guides? (If you weren’t thinking that, it was this: He stores oatmeal in his drawer?) Well, now we are getting somewhere. Without good style guides, a copy editor is just someone with a fancy fine-point Sharpie.

Style Guides

In an attempt to maximize clear communication with a reader, a style guide establishes standards for a variety of language topics, including spelling, grammar and punctuation. There are many different style guides, but the gold standards are The Associated Press Style Guide and The Chicago Manual of Style. Adherents to each are adamant in their defense, although they probably won’t fight to the death, as this story, “4 Copy Editors Killed in Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence,” from The Onion joked about. (It should be noted that Casey changed the word “in” to lowercase, as The Onion originally had it capitalized. It was the right thing to do, and that’s how he rolls.)

The thing that trumps a style guide is a house style. This is the style that a company, organization or publication chooses to be the standard for all things words.

At Britton Marketing, the foundation of our house style is AP, but we have a twist of Chicago. When we are really in a jam, we will consult Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan Garner, the preeminent grammar authority in the country. Garner actually penned the punctuation section of The Chicago Manual of Style.

Do you know what this means? We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!

We’re Not Worthy.

Of course there are rules, and then there are rules. Is a copy editor a descriptivist or a prescriptivist? A descriptivist is interested in the ever-evolving nature of language and its rules. A prescriptivist is interested in fixing a word problem by using a set of never-changing rules. Nowadays a good copy editor has to be a bit of both to achieve success, especially in the age of social media and its associated vernacular.

All of this copy editing talk has led us, of course, to the inevitable discussion about the — dun, dun, dunnn! — Oxford comma.

Oxford Comma

The Oxford, or serial, comma is the cause of much debate — and then some more debate after the original debate is thought to be over.

As a quick reminder, the Oxford comma is the comma used before a conjunction in a series. Advocates like “baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.” “Baseball, hot dogs and apple pie”? Not so much.

“When it comes to punctuation, I typically favor a less-is-more approach,” says Neal. “But to me, the Oxford comma provides clarity for the reader. And clarity is pretty much the whole point of punctuation in the first place.”

If hackles were involved, this is probably when they would get raised.

I was raised on a non-Oxford diet, but I can see its benefits (can’t we all get along?). At Britton Marketing, we are moderates. We follow The Associated Press Style Guide, which does not use the Oxford comma. But we do throw one in from time to time for clarity.

Journalists have been trained to omit the Oxford comma. And those copy editing them have been trained to extract any stray bits of comma. The literati are more apt to use it. Why the difference?

Merrill Perlman stated, “I suspect it comes down to what people were taught and when. Most of us learned grammar as rules, often accompanied by raps on the knuckle when an ungrammatical sentence escaped our mouths. That can really instill deep loyalty to the rule.”

John McIntyre, editor of the You Don’t Say blog at the Baltimore Sun, was more “blunt” in his take on the Oxford comma, according to Walt Hickey of “Feigned passion about the Oxford comma, when not performed for comic effect, is mere posturing.”

Hickey went on to write, “The people who tend to prefer the Oxford comma also tend to be the kind of people who will tell a survey that they think their own grammar is excellent. Zealous, but not really the humble type.”

If hackles were involved, this is probably when they would get raised.

Probably the most famous example for support of the Oxford comma is this sentence: We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin. You invited two strippers named JFK and Stalin? the Oxford supporters would ask.

And then (snark alert) anti-Oxfordians (I just made that up) would answer with We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin. This could make the reader think the stripper’s name was JFK.

All of this, of course, could be cleared up with some rewriting. And then everyone could go out for drinks, relax and talk about something less inflammatory, such as ending a sentence in a preposition.

This blog was fueled by Queen — Bohemian Rhapsody on Spotify.

Britton Marketing + Design Group

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Casey Neal
Copy Editor

*This story was cobbled together by
Chip Compton
Copywriter / Copy Editor

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