The Feature

Revenge of the copy editors: Grammar pros find internet stardom

February 27, 2017
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Backed by the cheery fiddle and guitar of Tom Moss’s “Gypsy Night Dance,” the bespectacled white-haired gentleman in a blue blazer, striped bow tie, and pocket square is holding forth on the language issue of the day.

“I’m sometimes asked,” he tells the camera, speaking patiently but gesturing intensely, “‘Is “data” singular or plural?’ The answer is yes.”

During his puckish two-minute presentation, John E. McIntyre will parse the difference between “data” and “datum,” broach whether “media” indicates one or many, and conclude reassuringly, “Latin is not the boss of us.”



McIntyre, the night content production manager at the Baltimore Sun, is one of an increasingly visible and robust breed of public masters of style and usage who have parlayed journalistic copy-desk expertise into an enthusiastic online following. In an age of texting and tweeting, these folks are trying to keep the mother tongue healthy, and their presence constitutes a refreshing renaissance for a profession that is generally underappreciated and rarely noticed—until, of course, a mistake shows up in print.

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McIntyre’s particular contribution is an outgrowth of a blog he has written for more than a decade. Since last summer he has issued some 30 web commentaries; subjects have ranged from the traditional taboo about beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction to the utility of the word “impactful.” Lately, his popularity has exploded.

“My blog does reasonably well for the sort of narrow audience it is aimed at,” he says. “It averages between 20 to 30,000 page views a month. Then we put up that first video, about the singular ‘they,’ and it got more than a million views. It was the single most successful video the Sun had done to date.” McIntyre estimates that in less than a year, as many as seven million people have tuned in.

Another online copyediting star is Mary Norris of The New Yorker. Like McIntyre’s, her web efforts are rooted in columns. Her celebrity kicked off with her 2012 piece “In Defense of ‘Nutty’ Commas,” which garnered “my biggest readership ever,” she says. This and other essays were the basis of her 2015 W.W. Norton book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

Partly to help promote the volume, Norris filmed a series of 32 shorts of some two or three minutes each. One of them, “Mad Dash,” teases out the fine distinctions among hyphens, en dashes and em dashes. Another explores the origins of the ampersand.

In a Halloween-timed entry about “Further or Farther,” Norris donned a regal wardrobe of aluminum crown and silvery cape, both adorned with comma motifs. For good measure, she wielded a giant pencil as a scepter (or “sceptre,” depending on your Anglophilia).

“I’ve had the good luck to be noticed,” says Norris. “I would think that the popularity of the videos shows there is a great interest in copy editors.”


Any general, newfound attention to grammatical, spelling, and punctuation standards may well have begun with the unexpected 2003 success of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Copy Editing. Further gains arrived via Mignon Fogarty, a former technical writer who now holds the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Media Entrepreneurship at the University of Nevada. In 2006 she cast herself as “Grammar Girl” and commenced on a series of podcasts that, according to Newsday, “sparked what you might call a worldwide, syntax-driven fiesta.”

“I didn’t know all the rules,” Fogarty recalls. “I was constantly looking things up in the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. And I wanted to convey it to other people. My goal was not to show how superior I was. I just wanted to help people learn.”

Fogarty soon published a bestselling St. Martin’s Griffin volume, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing; she has since published six other Grammar Girl books. Today, she estimates that her podcasts have been downloaded some 70 million times by audiences in Saudi Arabia, Russia, India, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. She also offers an interactive course for those who want to improve their AP style. “I thought, ‘This can’t last,’ but it did.”

This sort of interest does not surprise Mark Allen, formerly of the Columbus Dispatch and the coordinator of next month’s national conference of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“People are getting more information than they ever have, whether it’s in ink or electronically,” he says. “People want to read, and they want to read without stumbling. And that’s where the copy editor comes in. The copy editor is the bridge who keeps the writer from tripping up.”

Membership in ACES, which began as an outgrowth of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, plummeted with the crash of 2008 and consequent layoffs, downsizings, and buyouts. But enrollment has improved considerably since then, and Allen believes the burgeoning numbers augur well for those who wield itchy pencils.

“The recovery has been amazing,” he says. “We have perhaps 1,800 members.” Indeed, Allen said, last year’s ACES conference in Portland, Oregon, drew approximately a third of the society’s current members, and the upcoming gathering is on track to attract close to that number. Among the sessions will be “The Online Misinformation Ecosystem,” “Averting Burnout Constructively and Decisively,” and “‘French Toast’ vs. ‘french fries’: The Wild West of Food Editing.”

“We try not to get too hung up on the split infinitive,” says Allen.

Whither copy editing amid emojis, slangy acronyms (e.g. BTW, FYI, LOL), plain electronic sloppiness and even the gradual extinction of the period at the end of a sentence? The answer is far from clear. But there is cause for hope. As part of its much heralded hiring spree,  the Washington Post in January advertised for “energetic copy editors with a flair for headline writing” and “a strong understanding of language and style.”

The copy editor is the bridge who keeps the writer from tripping up.”

Before retiring this month after 38 years at The New Yorker, Mary Norris and her colleague Elizabeth Pearson-Griffiths, along with copy department head Ann Goldstein (who herself will retire in March), gave a master class for their younger counterparts. Around the same time, in full video view, their compatriot Andrew Boynton fiercely marked up President Trump’s sloppy Black History Month speech—as well as his equally egregious remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Boynton took almost an hour to do so.


Indeed, the new administration may unwittingly spark renewed support of proofreading alone. As The Week noted, “Trump’s list of purportedly underreported terrorist attacks might have appeared more credible if it hadn’t misspelled things like ‘attacker’ and ‘San Bernardino.’” And critics have pounced on a new Library of Congress print issued to celebrate Trump’s inauguration. In the space of just 20 words, it managed to deploy the word “to” when “too” was called for.

Admittedly, the copy editor’s lot generally remains a lonely one; whether working in graphite or keystroke, practitioners don’t often endear themselves to their writers. Ask John McIntyre, who served two terms as president of ACES from 2001 to 2005. Recently, he recalled the organization’s first conference 20 years ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for CJR.

“There were maybe 300 people,” he says, “and someone said that was probably the largest gathering of copy editors in one place in history. I came back and told that to my wife. And she said, ‘Except in hell.’”

Thomas Vinciguerra , a freelance writer and former CJR intern, is the author of Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker (W.W. Norton). He has published approximately 170 articles, essays, and reviews in The New York Times.