Never mind the widows and orphans

August 28, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Close attention to detail is a good thing in a copy editor. We want the text to be factually accurate, grammatical, and clear. But that attention to detail carries with it the hazard of becoming obsessed with trifles. 

Take, for example, the "widow," a short line of only a couple of words at the top of a leg of type, or the "orphan," its counterpart at the bottom. The page would certainly look a little cleaner if the top and bottom of each leg of type filled out the line. But the amount of time involved in recasting sentences to eliminate widows an orphans can be counterproductive, not to mention the risk each editor takes of creating error when rewording text. 

Some editors also spend their time pulling pieces of text from one line to the next. They think that if "$3" ends one line and "million" begins the next, the reader will mistakenly assume that the article is talking about the smaller amount and be brought up short.

This is probably nonsense, akin to the long-held antipathy to "bad breaks" in headlines. Copy editors have spent working lifetimes trying to avoid ending a line of a headline with a preposition, or with an adjective ending one line and the noun it modifies beginning the next. Then Alex Cruden, formerly of the copy desk of the Free Press in Detroit, thought to put the matter to the test. In dozens of workshops around the country with civilian readers, he found that no reader had any problem with "bad breaks." We had been laboring on an imaginary improvement. 

We also used to obsess over middle initials. That was, in part, because of the possibility of confusing two people with similar names when getting paper clippings from the morgue. But we carried it to ludicrous extremes with well-known people. Let an article reach proof with a reference to "U.S. Sen. Robert Dole," and the assiduous copy editor would proudly mark the proof to insert a "G." As if we would confuse him with some other senator named Dole. (Mr. Dole removed this particular tic from editing when he ran for the presidency and decided to style himself as plain old "Bob Dole.") 

Then there were the AP style superstitions, among them the belief that because AP says that if you write "half-mile," it must be hyphenated, all references to "half a mile" must be rewritten as "a half-mile." Mind you, AP never said you must do this; this is just the Talmudical kudzu that springs up among Associated Press Stylebook fanatics. 

I, too, have wasted innumerable working hours on this trivia. Before I became a tinpot copy desk authority myself, I had to follow orders. But now in particular, with a huge volume of online and print copy to be handled by fewer and fewer copy editors, the demands of triage require us to focus on what is essential, what we can reasonably accomplish in the limited time available, what previously observed practices no longer seem crucial, or even important. 

We have no time to waste. 

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.