To make a long story short, curmudgeon editor vigilant for mistakes

Phil Castle

Part of my job as an editor is to, well, edit. To review copy for facts, spelling and newspaper style. And sometimes make a long story short.

It’s a mostly rewarding task. More so when I need only a polishing cloth to make language sparkle. Less so when a wrecking ball is required to demolish entire stories and rebuild them word by word like brick walls.

More than 40 years on the job has turned me into something of a fussbudget, though. Make that curmudgeon aggravated by the least transgression. WHAT? You used further instead of farther? You must be out of your mind. And it’s seven, not 7. You spell it out. Criminy. What a dolt.

At the beginning of my career,
I expressed my frustrations using the pencil with which I edited typewritten copy. My weapon of choice was a Mirado Black Warrior loaded with No. 2 lead. Not to brag, but I was a young gun who could wield it with deadly proficiency. These days, I pound away at my keyboard to correct mistakes. And grumble loudly enough the nice woman who works next door to the office likely wonders about my emotional stability. I don’t blame her.

Actually, I appreciate technology and the efficiency it’s brought to newspaper journalism. I don’t want to go back to writing stories with typewriters, pasting together galleys with hot wax or printing photographs with toxic chemicals. The good old days were anything but.

I remain exasperated, however, by what I’d argue is another consequence of technology: despite software designed to prevent them, more frequent mistakes in the written word. The need for speed has supplanted respect for the language of Shakespeare. Does anybody know the differences among their, there and they’re? How about its and it’s? Capitalization has become a popularity contest. If a word looks or sounds important, by all means go ahead and capitalize it.

The problem is nearly ubiquitous in informal communications, but has spread like a virus to infect more formal venues — including those in business.

Lest the editor protest too much, I admit I find mistakes more often in emails and text messages than copy. I’m grateful for the conscientious efforts of contributors who write columns and valuable advice they offer readers. Nobody’s more excited than I am to share important information conveyed in captivating fashion. Nobody. If you don’t get excited about that, you have no business in the newspaper business. The local public relations professionals with whom I’m fortunate to work similarly submit clean and compelling copy. Thank you. Thank you very much.

But to pick a fight with strangers who can’t possibly defend themselves, a lot of what else shows up in my inbox can be bad and downright ugly.

While I’m confident enough to complain about the mistakes I detect in spelling and newspaper style, I’m less sure about punctuation marks. That’s because even experts must agree to disagree about punctuation marks.

Take the Oxford comma, for example. No. Really. Take it. Please. While some love the Oxford comma, I loathe it.

For those who have better things to do with their lives than obsess over punctuation marks — meaning nearly everyone with the possible exception of English majors and newspaper editors  — let me explain. An Oxford comma appears after the next to the last item in a list of three or more items. For example: red, white, and blue. Except it should read: red, white and blue.

I feel the same way about semicolons. Abraham Lincoln considered the semicolon a “useful little chap.” I side with author Kurt Vonnegut and his lesson on writing: “Do not use semicolons. … All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Don’t even get me started on exclamation points. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald put it best: “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

The problem, of course, with writing about editing and mistakes is the considerable risk I run a mistake will appear in the very column I’m writing and editing. That’s not to mention all the sentences I tend to leave incomplete. For all you eagle-eyed readers out there, I invite you to swoop in if you spot one. 

In the meantime, I’ll just keep on editing. That’s part of my job as an editor.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at 424-5133 or