Grammarians, Language Lovers Unite at 13th Annual ACES Conference

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

“Who loves semicolons?” a grammarian asked while teaching a workshop at the American Copy Editors Society conference last weekend. A room full of hands shot up. “Woohoo!” one audience member yelled.

It was an appropriate set-up for the discussion that followed — a discussion rooted in the nuts and bolts of grammar and in the belief that the structure of sentences and words matters. Talk of multiple singular antecedents, parallelisms and subject/verb agreement led to questions and concerns over a perceived “laxness” in the world of grammar.

Is it OK if we split infinitives? What about beginning sentences with “but” or “and”? How about using sentence fragments (sparingly?) It’s OK to do all of these things in moderation, said Wichita Eagle Deputy Copy Desk Chief Lisa McLendon, who led the workshop.

Some “rules” aren’t so bendable, though. Subjects and verbs should agree, modifiers shouldn’t be misplaced and participles shouldn’t dangle.

Seeing McLendon and audience members become impassioned by the discussion made me chuckle at times, but also made me realize how important it is to have a group of professionals who care about preserving the English language. We need people who cringe when they see misspellings in menus, who take pictures of grammatically incorrect signs that say “Veteran’s Memorial Park” and who save writers from confusing “who” from “whom” and “lie” from “lay.”

Having edited my college newspaper and lots of stories on Poynter Online, I can understand why newsrooms need copy editors, and I can’t help but worry when I hear about them getting laid off.

Just last week, The Baltimore Sun let go of many of its copy editors, including the esteemed John McyIntyre. Fewer copy editors (and reporters, photographers, etc.,) in the newsroom often results in fewer attendants at conferences such at ACES. Chris Wienandt, ACES president, made it known that the society lost thousands of dollars by holding this year’s conference. The society also opened the conference up to more non-journalists this year.

Some of the estimated 235 attendees (down more than 100 from previous years) were from trade publications, universities and even the CIA. Others I talked to were simply interested in editing or had recently gotten laid off and wanted a chance to surround themselves with fellow language lovers.

As a copy editor, I valued what these language lovers had to say. And as a writer, I’ve always appreciated getting calls or pointers from them.

–“You put a comma before and after Joe Smith’s son’s name. That would mean that’s his only son. Is that true?”

–You said ‘While preparing for her presentation, she only talked to people who had been affected by the tragedy.’ I’m guessing she probably did more than just talk to people while preparing for the project, so we should make that “While preparing for her presentation, she talked only to people who had been affected by the tragedy.”

Oops.

They’re subtle changes, but they matter to copy editors and to readers who are sticklers for good grammar. They matter to me, too. I’m a “copy editor” by title, but I don’t always consider myself one in the sense that I do a lot more than copy edit in my current job. I edit stories from beginning to end, then copy edit them, and I write, do Web production, etc.

I’ve always enjoyed reporting more than copy editing, but I think that in many ways, being a copy editor can make you a better writer. The job teaches you to pay attention to words, sentence structure, details, facts and more. It’s helped me to clear clutter from my own writing, craft SEO-friendly headlines and more diligently check my facts. One of my journalism friends recently told me, “I think it helps, actually, to write for a few years and then edit, and then write again.”

I’d agree. Working as both an editor and a writer also helps you understand how different departments in the newsroom work, and makes you better able to advocate for colleagues on both ends of the production cycle.

If I didn’t have any editing experience, I probably wouldn’t have as fully enjoyed the “smackdown” between Merrill Perlman, former director of copy desks at The New York Times and Bill Walsh, copy chief for national and foreign news at The Washington Post at the end of the conference. The smackdown involved an Everlast T-shirt, red boxing gloves and a heated debate over, yes, style points.

One point of debate: Should we say “The real-estate agent bought an ice-cream cone” or “The real estate agent bought an ice cream cone” sans hyphens? (Walsh said yes to the hyphens, while Perlman and others said no.)

The crowd joined in. One woman who was passionate about hyphens, or a lack thereof, shouted, “AP finally dropped the hyphen in ‘teenaged’ – YES!”

These kinds of exclamations are commonplace among copy editors, especially when you get a group of them together. I may not always share the same level of excitement, and I can’t say I love semicolons, but I sure appreciate those who do.

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