You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
The New Language Police, III
Angel of the Last Judgment, Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

The New Language Police, III

When Copyeditors Point Fingers. This is the third article in a four-part series.

David Skinner

Editing and its siblings copyediting and fact-checking are all hard work. They require intellect, focus, and no small amount of self-denial. But lately I’ve noticed copyeditors going on the offensive, assuming the shape of cultural and language critics. Some are even reading out the sins of writers. What gives?

One driver of this may be technological. As spell check and autocorrect save writers from an increasing range of errors, copyeditors are expanding their services to provide more advice on political and social aspects of publishing. Supply thus meets demand as the price for disrespecting (or being thought to disrespect) someone’s gender, ethnicity, race, mental, physical, or economic status becomes quite dear.

Help in this area could, in theory, save one from giving unintended offense and maybe even preserve their job or reputation. In reviewing the advice offered under these auspices, however, one finds the usual political agendas and pressures for conformity masking as writing tips. And the fact that copyeditors and other language mavens are heaping shame on commonplace words and ideas is reminiscent of the rule-mongering that good writers and editors have long been wary of.


Take the editorial approach that goes under the name of Conscious Style. Started by the editor Karen Yin in 2015 and debuted at the American Copyeditors Society meeting, the Conscious Style Guide is a loose body of prescriptive recommendations drawn from liberal or progressive sources. The website gathers style guides from national organizations such as GLAAD and the American Psychological Association, as well as guides from educational groups and similar others, uncritically granting interested parties all the standing of recognized authority. In addition to promoting outside content through Twitter and an email newsletter, Conscious Style also publishes original articles, including Henry Fuhrmann’s recently cited piece on hyphens, providing discussion and close reading of writing and usages that might be corrected for overall sensitivity.

The slogan of “conscious style” is “make peace with words.” It’s a pun on writing with an intention to repair instead of to injure and on parting ways with words and turns of phrase that have come to be seen as hurtful, deriving from a history of prejudice, or in some other way falling short of the latest thinking on our mores, possibly as hashed out on Twitter five minutes ago.

Yin recently told Mark Allen, host of That Word Chat (a quirky but interesting online interview show featuring copyeditors and lexicographers as guests) that the first stage of her project was building a database of editors of color who can be hired for, (among other things), sensitivity or authenticity readings. The price for a sensitivity reading for a book Yin estimated at a few hundred dollars.

Sensitivity readers may smack of political correctness to some, but many good writers show their work to experts of one kind or another before publishing. I have done it myself, and can see that paying for the service instead of treating it as a favor may make it easier to obtain.

But diversity, says Yin, is “barely the beginning.” It is merely an opening to the problem of inequality. (Yes, we are still talking about copyediting.) As a matter of genre, one expects playfully erudite arguments about, say, the serial comma or indulging a semi-colon. Here, instead, Yin takes the discussion in an unapologetically ideological direction: “Definitely we want to go beyond diversity and actually change the structures in place, which prevent equality from taking root.”

In reading through the materials on the Conscious Style website, I see nothing that might deliver on so heady a goal, which is reassuring. What I do find, however, is a good bit of breathless fretting about commonplace literary formulas that seem harmless or even useful.

“Buying a Kate Spade handbag was a coming-of-age ritual for a generation of American women,” wrote a trio of writers in the New York Times in June of 2018. This unremarkable lead sentence gets a big thumbs-down from Denise-Marie Ordway at Conscious Style. The problem? It doesn’t welcome or acknowledge readers who can’t afford a Kate Spade bag. Ordway and her coauthor Heather Bryant, both well-credentialed reporters who personally knew poverty while children, want the media to see how overly broad generalizations exclude or ignore those who do not know luxury handbags as a coming-of-age ritual.

Odd to say, the criticism ignores what a lead sentence is for. Like a McGuffin, the phony opening plot of a Hollywood movie, a lead sentence has only one mission: to get the ball rolling. It often takes the shape of an interesting but incomplete truth to be expanded upon later. You may not start out knowing what a Kate Spade bag is, but by the end of the second paragraph you learn it is the marquee product of a whole line of luxury goods. Certainly the sentence could have been edited without much violence to specify a generation of upper-middle class women or something like that, but that may not be true: Luxury in America is not just for the lucky. Successful brands owe some of their cachet to those who can only afford the T-shirt with the Gucci logo.

There are many possible ways to think about readers and choosing one is a critical element of a writer’s style. With at least as much logic and precedent, a writer can, in many instances, assume the reader is not helpless to know what a newspaper hasn’t spelled out for them. The reader, after all, brings their own competence to the exchange. One might even say that all reading is the skill of joining a conversation already underway and being able to catch up. And our backgrounds, as well as the writer’s expectations of our backgrounds, are not like a boarding pass that must be stamped before reading can begin. All the time we read messages not written with our various identities in mind—it’s part of the genius of literacy. An atheist might read the Bible; a capitalist might read Marx; a young boy might read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.

Many positions of the new language police work by isolating discrete faults to make ever broader objections at the cost of under-describing that which the objector pretends to care so much about: words and language. Recently, while listening to a session on inclusive editing from another organization, I noticed a copyeditor single out the introduction “Ladies and gentlemen” for excluding people who consider themselves neither male nor female.

As I considered the novel but straightforward criticism, I was struck by the incredulous tone of the objector. They didn’t seem aware that “ladies and gentlemen” served any purpose other than to divide the world into men and women. There is so much more in those three words, to like or hate, depending on your preference. The phrase is also classist, though in a manner intended to be flattering: It calls the people in attendance gentle, as in of gentle birth. It is also a traditional greeting, dating back centuries. Last, it is, for some reason, amusing. Amusing to repeat the very words that have always been said at a moment like this. Amusing to note the building anticipation of an event, a show! Amusing to be here, in a special place, the air bubbly with the energy of other people, strangers, characters, people ready to see and be seen. “Ladies and gentlemen” is a ritual summoning of public life and the secular blessing of events with the least pretense to social status. It may be flawed, but it is not without pleasure or glamor. One doesn’t have to be a lady or a gentleman per se to accept it as polite address.

One strength of Conscious Style is that it’s not selling any index of expressions to be banned. Yin and her website seem to acknowledge the tentative nature of those adjustments we make to our usage in our varied efforts to be politic, which by itself puts the project way ahead of other efforts to correct people’s usage. But it is in the nature of such endeavors to nag, to correct, to backseat-drive, and to frame their offerings as an alternative to the thoughtless ways of the benighted, the unaware, and the unconscious.

To which one might say, What makes you sure everyone else is so clueless?

Another article at Conscious Style counsels against, when writing about food and family, assuming that all grandmothers are good cooks. It’s a familiar trope in food writing: cookies like your grandmother made and so on. The problem? “Many women of past generations may not have been naturally great cooks; rather, they were forced by patriarchal rules and attitudes to accrue a lifetime of practice and become efficient, dependable, crowd-pleasing cooks.”

This may be true. Many great accomplishments hide real instances of documentable cruelty. Think of cities built by slave labor. Empires raised on the bones of the innocent. Think of history’s looters, its butchers, its countless savages raised barely above the level of animal predation.

Or, better yet, think of your grandma. Think of apple pie and the sweet bonds of family. Think of the gratitude you owe the people who care for you. Think of their efforts in the kitchen. And be kind. It is the least you can do. Grandma’s great cooking may be a cliché but it is one of those clichés that is holding the world together. It exists to compensate for the hard times and, to borrow a phrase, make peace with words.

David Skinner is an editor and writer. He is author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (2012) and many essays on literary culture and history.