Pardon me, but your editing is showing

Seeing evidence of editing in a published work gives me a little thrill. We copy editors strive to make sure that our editing is not noticed — that is, we try to maintain the writer’s voice when we smooth out sentences and correct usage. Depending on our role, we might also try to make sure that the writer’s work is accurate. But we try to do this as unobtrusively as we can. Like the ladies of another generation who were mortified when a slip peeked out from beneath their skirt, we are embarrassed if our editing shows.

One recent Sunday, as I read journalist Helen Thomas’s obituary in the New York Times in print, I saw this:


As you can see, someone who handled that story asked whether the reference to Thomas’s parents’ origin in a part of Syria should be changed to the Ottoman Empire. It’s a great question. The Ottoman Empire held the territory that is now Syria and Lebanon into the 20th century. An earlier sentence in Thomas’s obit refers to her parents immigrating to the United States from what is now Lebanon.

The question could have been inserted anytime in the editing; I like to imagine a sharp copy editor on the job. The problem, of course, is that the editing system somehow turned a note into published text. We are sometimes betrayed by our technology. Also, we can’t tell whether the question was answered, dismissed, or merely missed, although the reference in the online version hints at what the solution was. Here is that paragraph in the online version:

Helen Thomas was born in Winchester, Ky., on Aug. 4, 1920, and grew up in Detroit, one of 10 children of George and Mary Thomas. Her father, who could not read or write, encouraged his children to go to college.

Even though the question showed up in print in a way that I am sure led to some chagrin, I am glad that it was raised.