A role for the copy editor

Some authors rail against copy editors, and, sadly, the editors sometimes bring the enmity upon themselves. The latest author with a copy editor horror story is George Lakoff, who reports that his classic Metaphors We Live By would have been called Metaphors By Which We Live if his University of Chicago Press copy editor had his way.

According to Language Log

Lakoff wrote a 23-page single-spaced blast against this man’s recommendations, showing in detail and with clear arguments the nature of the hole up which the editor’s head was. And then unusually it turned out to be all happy endings: the linguists won, the editor resigned from the project, the editing changes were not made, the title was kept, and the book was a huge hit.

Is a happy ending from editing so unusual? Is there then no useful role for the copy editor? Of course there is. These folks can and often are quite helpful — even to nonprescriptive linguists — but they need to bring the proper attitude to the job. (It shouldn’t be necessary to say this.) Rather than seeing their role as grammar dominatrices they need to recognize that their assignment is to help authors realize their goals according to the strategies implicit in their works.

Years ago one of my favorite free-lance editors was an aspiring actress. Working with her I realized that copy editors are not unlike actors. Both are trying to immerse themselves in and in effect embody an author’s words. Copy editors need to be flexible, let go of their own voice, and adapt to the author’s individual style. Each edit should be a collaboration between the author and the editor, a unique work of art.

Some editors, though, can’t let go in that way — they stick to their guns come hell or high water. But don’t damn the whole profession because of them.


image via freefromeditors.com


← Previous post

Next post →


  1. *cough* Lacoff -> Lakoff *cough*

    It’s worth pointing out, I think, that the book was published in 1980. Has copyediting changed since then? Surely, but how? We can see how the mechanics have changed by comparing editions of the Chicago Manual. But (how) has the philosophy of the job changed?

    It’s also interesting—to me, at least—that U. Chi. recently published a book (Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor) that cautions against making exactly this sort of edit. I keep meaning to review it on my blog; perhaps today . . .

  2. As I just spent about an hour yesterday researching whether I was sitting upon a couch or a sofa, I appreciate this sort of post very much (sofa seems to be correct).

  3. xensen

    Bravo, India, you passed the test — I was trying to see if you’d catch that 😉 (you see — proves my point — I need a copy editor. Now fixed). I’ll keep an eye out for your comments on The Subversive Copy Editor.

    Nico, to me those terms are synonymous. Couch comes from the French couche (related to coucher, to lie down), whereas sofa comes from a Turkish word of the same spelling meaning bench.

    I read that “Traditionally, a couch has the head end only raised, and only half a back; a sofa has both ends raised and a full back; a settee is like a sofa but may be without arms; an ottoman has neither back nor arms, nor has a divan, the distinctive feature of which is that it goes against a wall.”

    Who knew?