Copy editors are criticized sometimes for caring about things that other people don’t care about. We are ridiculed for reserving “enormity” for “great wickedness” and not using it to mean “immensity” or “vastness.” We are told that readers don’t care that “begs the question” doesn’t mean “raise the question.” Usage is changing, we’re told. Pay attention to the things that matter.
Indeed, we should be able to keep our eyes on the forest as well as the trees. First, we need to make sure that the copy we edit makes sense and reads well. If we are responsible for accuracy (and I think every editor is), then we need to check the facts and the truth of what we are editing. We need to make sure that the copy is consistent with our publications’ standards. We need to assure that the big type (headlines and captions) is correct and that the format is what our readers expect. We need to help writers get their point across and keep the distractions to a minimum.
We can apply our personal standards, too. That doesn’t mean allowing our peeves to lead us out on a shaky limb, but we know conventions that our writers might need to be reminded of. Part of our job is being sensitive to the conventions of usage that our loyal readers know and sometimes keeping those sticklers among our readers quiet by enforcing a usage standard that others may not believe in. I know, for example, that “which” can be used with essential clauses, but I also see instances when “that” can be substituted, doing no harm to the sentence and heading off the nitpicking from the readers who learned the “that/which” rule. I don’t kowtow to every usage myth, but I do pick the fights I want. I’d rather defend against the really stupid myths, such as not starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction or not splitting a verb or an infinitive. I would rather not let the distraction of a violated usage standard or a dumb typo get in the way of a reader’s understanding or enjoyment.