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Story pick: The end of English

By Brigid Schulte

After one particularly frustrating late-night experience with a literal-minded copy editor who didn't like my use of the idiom "hard by" to describe the location of a tiny, cramped little house (i.e. the tidy home "hard by a sound wall along Interstate 495"), I told my kids they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up. Except copy editors.

("Hard by," by the way, means "close by" or "near at hand." It conjures up a mournful, almost fatalistic air, for me. Like the word hardscrabble. The story was about a young man who was shot and killed when the group he was eating with dined and dashed at an IHOP. When I went to visit his shocked parents, I was struck by how ominous that enormous sound wall looked just a few hundred yards from the little house. "Near" or "right in front of" just weren't doing it for me. Why bother with the description of where the house is, or the wall at all, if it isn't going to be somehow evocative?)

I soon came to regret those angry words. Time after time, savvy copy editors have saved my wordy rear-end from perpetual embarrassment and a permanent spot in the A2 corrections column - catching typos, brain-dead spelling, syntax-mangling, and simple facts, such as somebody's name that I'd blithely neglected to mention.

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So it was with regret and recognition that I read Gene Weingarten's piece, Goodbye, cruel words: English. It's dead to me. in the Washington Post's Sunday magazine.

After cataloging a host of grammar, spelling and just plain stupid errors newspapers have been publishing since they cut back their copy editing staffs, Weingarten closed with this:

It was not immediately clear to what degree the English language will be mourned, or if it will be mourned at all. In the United States, English has become increasingly irrelevant, particularly among young adults. Once the most popular major at the nation's leading colleges and universities, it now often trails more pragmatic disciplines, such as economics, politics, government, and, ironically, "communications," which increasingly involves learning to write mobile-device-friendly ads for products like Cheez Doodles.

To which one tweeter named jppalm tweeted in the comments section: "English got whacked? WTF? She was my BFF! :(

For a revealing - and hilarious - insider's view of what it's like to be a copy editor on the other end of the phone with us (did I say self-important?) writer slobs, you must read Lori Fradkin's essay on theawl.com. (Its motto, which I particularly like: Be Less Stupid.)

She writes:

The word is douche bag. Douche space bag. People will insist that it’s one closed-up word—douchebag—but they are wrong. When you cite the dictionary as proof of the division, they will tell you that the entry refers to a product women use to clean themselves and not the guy who thinks it’s impressive to drop $300 on a bottle of vodka. You will calmly point out that, actually, the definition in Merriam-Webster is “an unattractive or offensive person” and not a reference to Summer’s Eve. They will then choose to ignore you and write it as one word anyway.

I know this because, during my three-plus years as a copy editor, I had this argument many, many times.

So, all hail the thinning ranks of the copy editors of the world, who once proudly kept our punctuation in line and our grammar on its toes. (And this from someone who once didn't get a job writing captions at National Geographic for what I was told was "overuse of the semi-colon.") May the handful of you left continue to save us from our own stupidity. We needs you.

By Brigid Schulte  | September 21, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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