During the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) conference last weekend, I had the great pleasure of meeting Emmy Favilla, copy chief at Buzzfeed. I’m a big fan of the smart, comprehensive, and very inclusive Buzzfeed style guide, so it was a treat to speak with its lead author in person. (Favilla was also quick to credit her colleague Saeed Jones, formerly Buzzfeed’s LGBT editor and now its pioneering literary editor, for contributing to the guide as well.)
Copyeditors love clicking on lists as much as anyone, but we love peeving even more– so when Favilla asked us to pose for photos with notes about what we’d banish from the English language, we lined up to participate. The result is up today: 30 Copy Editors Tell Us Their Pet Peeves. I’m #11! (All photos by Emmy Favilla of Buzzfeed.)
Do I agree with everything here? Well, no. (That would be impossible, since many of these peeves contradict one another.) I’m happy to see some of the conference’s best and brightest promoting the singular they.
Two editors I respect greatly, Steve Kleinedler of the American Heritage Dictionary and Gerri Berendzen of ACES, disagree on whether to boldly split infinitives (for the record, I’m with Steve on this one). [UPDATE: In fact, they don’t disagree at all! Gerri graciously let me know that I misread her sign. She wants to banish split infinitives as an issue we argue about, not to banish split infinitives themselves. Sorry, Gerri! Glad you’re on Team To Boldly Go!]
Another editor chides readers to “avoid using that,” a rule I can’t endorse: while it’s fine to get rid of extraneous thats, as a set rule this does little service to writers, since there are plenty of instances in which that is indeed helpful.
Consider the sentence “He believed his wife lied.” You’re reading along, minding your own business, and you’re told that the guy believed his wife. And then– zing!— the sentence makes a U-turn and tells you the exact opposite. He believed that his wife lied.
As a reader, this sort of thing bothers me, so as an editor I think that has its uses. As the Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre puts it:
The advice at the heart of all these prescriptions is Don’t write awkwardly. Getting at that is time-consuming and difficult. You have to look at the sentences, determine the intended meaning and effect, and establish what vocabulary and syntax best accomplish the purpose.
Meanwhile, Robinson Prize winner Larissa Newton closes the peeving session with a plea for peace.
It’s a laudable sentiment. Can we? Most of the time, I think so. I’m an Oxford-comma partisan and I’ve chosen my side in the AP/Chicago wars, but if you disagree, we can still be friends. The key is picking your battles. When it comes to questions like whether to countenance the use of racial slurs, whether to treat transgender and nonbinary people like people, or whether avoiding ableist language is worth your time, though, some things are worth fighting for.