Once, long ago, I was briefly a copy-editor at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. I wasn’t exactly prospering as a lawyer, and a friend who worked at the paper persuaded the managing editor to let me try the copy desk. I did rather well at it, as I recall, but after a month or so there was a regime change, or something, and my informal arrangement was quietly terminated. I probably could have pushed to keep the job, but I didn’t really want to be a copy-editor, even though I enjoyed the work and was good at it.
The job of a copy-editor, at least at the Pilot, at least in the early 1990s, was twofold: to correct errors of grammar, spelling, etc., in articles, and to write headlines. If I remember right, I was pretty good at both, though I haven’t preserved any memorable examples. At any rate, I learned the job.
Which is part of why I so often find reading the New York Times so annoying. You’d think that the self-appointed Newspaper of Record would devote a little more of its budget to making sure that the Record is kept in good English.
Several years ago, the Times‘s web site had a “meet the editors” feature, in which readers were invited to submit questions for an editor to answer. One day, the chief copy-editor had her turn. Here’s the question I sent in:
What do you do all day?
My question was not selected for an answer.
Today, I discovered that the Times actually offers a quiz called “Copy Edit This!” on its web site. It’s presented in the name of the Times’s standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, who invites readers “to correct grammatical errors in recent New York Times articles.” I don’t know whether that means that “standards editor” is what they now call the chief copy-editor at the Times, or that there are no more copy-editors there; but I incline towards the second possibility. Why else would there be errors in recent articles for readers to correct in quiz after quiz? (Today’s is number ten.)
I took today’s quiz, and here are my results:
I really don’t mean to brag: it was a pretty easy quiz. What kind of worries me is that 95% of Times readers who took the quiz—people who thought they knew something about grammar—did worse.
I made two errors. Here’s the first:
I have to admit, I didn’t know the difference between premiere and premier. I will note, however, that the word it in the first sentence has no referent.
Here’s the second:
I overlooked “laying” the first time I read the quotation, which is a bit embarrassing, because I’m usually pretty sensitive to that error (although I think it’s not always an error—but that’s a topic for another day). I will maintain, however, that my first choice was also an error, which the authors of the quiz missed: the writer should have used attended, not tended. One can tend one’s sheep, or one (or at least one’s politics) can tend to Communism, or one can tend to drive too fast, but one cannot tend to Mr. Small.
At the end of the quiz we find this invitation:
Spot an error in The Times? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will just note that that is not Mr. Corbett’s direct e-mail address.