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Man can't spell diarrhoea ...

My first boss after I fell into the language business was a man called Sean Purcell. He was chief sub-editor of the Irish Press, and he and his deputy, the Joycean scholar Terence Killeen (John Banville had only recently left), taught me all that I needed to know about the practicalities of putting manners (which is to say syntax, grammar and correct spelling) on the often rushed and occasionally inept offerings of our crack reporters.

When the Press shut up shop in 1995, Sean took a short while out before eventually coming over for a few years towards the end of his career to The Irish Times, where he was a much valued revise editor (Terence was another, having gone over to the IT before the Press’s closure). At the time there were always three such operatives on the (much larger) sub-editing team, two of whom would be on duty on any given night. The revise editor's job was to be the last pair of eyes for the paper, and revise editors were people who, by virtue of their experience and ability, were expected to catch errors that others, in the always rushed conditions of the editing process of a daily newspaper, might not have spotted.

When Sean eventually retired from The Irish Times, a short song was written in celebration of his work and his craft, which was to be sung to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Highway Patrolman”. This is a haunting if somewhat mournful piece; Johnny Cash covered it later on, in his splendid late phase, and possibly that version has wider appeal.

Springsteen sang of duty, and loyalty, the ties that bind, and doing things right:

My name is Joe Roberts. I work for the state.
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville, barracks number 8.
I always done an honest job, as honest as I could.
I got a brother named Franky, and Franky ain’t no good.

Now ever since we was young kids it’s been the same come-down.
I get a call over the radio, Franky’s in trouble downtown.
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away,
But when it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way.

Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’, nothin’ feels better than blood on blood.
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”.
I catch him when he’s strayin’, like any brother would.
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.

Our version, renamed “The Spelling Patrolman”, sang of duty, perseverance and trying to make it right when it’s wrong.

My name is Sean Purcell. I work for the Times
S’pose I’m a kind of back-up man, they call it “Revise”.
I’ve always done an honest job, honest as I could.
If my colleagues fuck it up bad, I try to make it good.

And on to the chorus:

Me and Godfrey sittin’ there thinkin’, ain’t nothin’ sweeter than intellect.
Checkin’ out the syntax with Terence, takin’ commas out, puttin’ ’em back in again.
I catch ’em when they’re strayin’, like any good sub should.
Man can’t spell diarrhoea, he ain’t no good.

I was reminded of these matters recently on reading an enjoyable, if somewhat overlong, article by Mary Norris in The New Yorker on her experience as a copy editor (this side of the Atlantic we say sub-editor) for that prestigious magazine. Actually Norris is not strictly speaking a mere copy editor but something rather more grand:

... it has now been more than twenty years since I became a page O.K.’er ‑ a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go to press. An editor once called us prose goddesses; another job description might be comma queen. Except for writing, I have never seriously considered doing anything else.
One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience. The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.

Don’t we all? The very short piece I’ve quoted above affords some examples of the almost limitless possibilities for uncertainty in the craft of (sub-)editing. Obviously there is the American “favors”, which we would write as “favours”; but what about “O.K.’er”? The tendency in British English is now to leave out full points – “Mr” and “GK Chesterton” rather than “Mr.” and “G.K. Chesterton” (let alone “G. K. Chesterton”). We also deprecate the use of an apostrophe, or indeed a hyphen, in homemade constructions like “O.K.’er”. So that seems to leave us with “OKer” (or, in Irish Times style, “Okayer”). Dammit, it’s ugly no matter what way you write it; what’s wrong with “approver”? Then there is the problem of consistency – or the trap of expecting consistency in a field which is unlikely to deliver it. The editing process, at least in well-financed publications like The New Yorker, seems to involve people who check facts as well as people who read proofs. So why are the former “fact checkers” while the latter are “proofreaders”? Should we compromise on “fact-checkers” and “proof-readers”? (Not in the view of the present writer, who is a sworn enemy of the hyphen, or at least of its current tendency to infest reporter’s English.)

The journalist Brian Inglis wrote in his autobiography Downstart (1990) about his experience as a junior reporter in The Irish Times in Dublin (before he went off to fight in the Second World War), when the journalistic corps was divided by management into “the reporters” and “the gentlemen”. Reporters were meant to be beefy chaps who could put a foot in a door and were accustomed to ferreting out information and finding answers (no need to tell us how you found out). The gentlemen, on the other hand, were chaps (pretty much always chaps) who were supposed to know things, essential things like what the younger sons of a duke or a marquess were called or the difference between a captain and a group captain, so that howlers might as far as possible be avoided and the general blood pressure level of Kingstown kept under control.

There has been a great deal of water under the bridge since those days – indeed most of the gentlemen seem to have fallen in. It is seldom that the newspaper sub-editor now has anything like the delicious leisure that still seems to be enjoyed by Ms Norris’s prose goddesses and comma queens. Indeed the trade has become a decidedly more blue-collar business: we are less likely, at ten minutes to deadline, to hear an anguished call of “Is that a dangling modifier I see on page eight?” than one of “Did I not tell you to let that fucking page go?”

And yet, to return to Springsteen, there can still be a gritty ethical code associated with even the most humble of blue-collar jobs: you do what you have to do, or at least you do what you can do, in circumstances that are not of your making. And if sometimes it’s just not practicable to apply the rules strictly and, like Joe Roberts with Franky, you have to look the other way, still, most of the time, you do what is right:

We catch ’em when they’re strayin’, pull ’em back in line
Man can’t spell diarrhoea, ain’t no friend of mine.

Mary Norris on style at The New Yorker: http://nyr.kr/1vOV6cB

8/3/2015