The Compulsive Copyeditor

About The Compulsion


Two things made me realize I’d better start this site.

One was when my poor sister showed me an article she’d written about an upcoming fishing tournament for a local Florida paper, in next to no time and for next to no money, and I copyedited it (all the more gratuitously since it was already in print).  I could not refrain from pedantically pointing out, for instance, that the sponsor of the fishing tournament was not Hooter’s but Hooters (there are two per waitress).  I’d just come off a deadline for my steady magazine copyediting gig, and I couldn’t stop.

I reminded myself of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, coming off a long shift on the assembly line with a wrench in each hand and a mad gleam in his eye, twitching as he looks wildly around for pairs of things that need tweaking.  A middle-aged woman with a button on the tip of each ample hooter hoves into view, and . . .

The second precipitating factor was that in my job as a chief copyeditor, I am often asked TO RULE.  This was a part of the job that took some growing into.  I mean, who am I, anyway, King Solomon?  I couldn’t carry E.B. White’s bags, much less hold up Strunk’s trunks.  But lately, these rulings have begun to surprise me by coming forth not just with confidence, but with authority.  With the Chicago Manual of Style watching my back, I turn out to be quite opinionated about grammar, punctuation, and style, and my opinions often feel both ingenious and well founded, like new legal arguments grounded in precedent.  Maybe at least some of them will be useful precedents for someone else.  Maybe rulings on grammar should be argued and archived like the body of opinion of a court of law.

Example:  when you make a compound modifier from the compound common name of a species, should it be hyphenated?  That is, if a swamp is dominated by bald cypress trees, is it a bald-cypress swamp or a bald cypress swamp?  If a superb starling builds a nest, is it a superb-starling nest or a superb starling nest?  Ordinarily, the latter would be vulnerable to “grammatical ambiguity” (I don’t even know if this is a “real” term or one I’ve coined):  the mind knows perfectly well what you mean, but is nonetheless lured into the absurdity of contemplating a superb nest built by a run-of-the-mill starling, or a bald swamp that’s losing its cypresses.  On the other hand, if you once start hyphenating these things, you have to hyphenate ’em all, and there’s no end to it.

The solution lies in capitalization:  compound modifiers made from proper names don’t take hyphens. Chicago Manual‘s example:  State Department employees, not State-Department employees.

But it is not our practice to capitalize species common names.

So I invented “the uncapitalized proper name.”  The name “bald cypress” is a unit.  Its two words go everywhere together as if they were one.  Since they cannot be separated, they don’t need to be joined by a hyphen.  The invisible glue that holds them together banishes grammatical ambiguity.

At least, so rules the Compulsive Copyeditor.  In language there is no last word.

“Body” of opinion, indeed:  grammar, punctuation, and style are physical to me.  It’s as if the English language is my skeleton.  If a comma or a phrase is misplaced, I feel it in my body, like a jammed finger or a dislocated shoulder.  I’m uncomfortable until I put it right.

Which can make me obnoxious.  For the same reason that it’s rude to walk up to someone and straighten their clothes, wipe a smudge off their face, or fix their posture, I’m going to try to sublimate my compulsion here.  Then it may be useful instead of bossy.

Opinions will be intermittent.  I’m not going to go looking for things to write here.  We’ll see how often they find me.


  1. Axolotl.

    Comment by Tmasthenes — December 25, 2009 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

  2. I just discovered that what I called “the uncapitalized proper name” has an official name: “permanent noun compound.”

    Comment by amba12 — May 12, 2015 @ 11:46 am | Reply

  3. Annie, this is excellent. I’d like to see you follow this essay with more until it becomes a series. It’s not only bright and sensible, but very entertainingly written. I can imagine an entire little book evolving “from so humble a beginning,” which could become a cultish favorite.

    Comment by Richard Milner — June 23, 2015 @ 1:57 am | Reply

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