Copy editors are not (necessarily) prudes

Copy editors enforce the publication’s standards. They often have to enforce rules that they themselves disagree with or might even find distasteful or silly. That’s why this quote spotted at Jim Romenesko’s site burns me up: “It’s unclear how or why this f-bomb made it past The Times’s prude copy-editors,” writes Rebecca Greenfield on The Atlantic Wire. (The New York Times allowed the word into print as part of a quote.)

I wish to tell all of those journalists and others who have never worked on a newspaper copy desk that the only reason copy editors get the “prude” label is that we are enforcing the standards of the real prudes: our editors-in-chief and the readers they don’t want to take calls from. I might personally shy away from using the notorious f-word in print myself, but that decision was well above my pay grade when I worked on a newspaper copy desk, even when I was a supervisor. We knew the standards and we followed them.

Copy editors are skeptical of everything, and that includes the standards of polite society. Many I have known over the years are the least prudish people I’ve encountered in newsrooms. Even those who consider themselves prudes come to that mindset after a scrupulous examination of reality and their own values.

Copy editors are a diverse bunch in their personal views, but they are professionals when it comes to their work, and they know the lines that their publications won’t cross. I also would bet my last dollar that the decision to allow that word into print was NOT made by a copy editor.