If you’re not a bit of a word geek, you can safely skip this post. “Johnson” looks at the role of the copy editor:
Having recently had my forthcoming book copy-edited, I jumped right on the link (at Andrew Sullivan) to read Lori Fradkin’s “What It’s Really Like To Be A Copy Editor”. I’d struggled for hours with my manuscript, wondering what to stet and what not to stet, marvelling both at my copy editor’s care and at the confusion she introduced in places. So I was eager to see what Ms Fradkin had to say about the other side of this relationship.
But the experience isn’t quite what he hopes: Ms Fradkin is inclined to a “because the dictionary says so” approach that “Johnson” finds overly restrictive.
This is not to say “everything is right” and to get back into the tired prescriptivist-descriptivist debate. A debate about hyphens or compounds should have something useful to say about language itself. For example, The Economist hyphenates compounds when they are used as modifiers: interest-rate hikes, balance-of-payments crises, and so forth. These aren’t hyphenated when used as nouns. (“Interest rates must go up.”) I like this hyphenation. It helps prevent so-called garden-path misanalysis, by letting the reader know that even though he’s seeing two nouns in a row, they should be understood as a compound modifier, and another noun is coming up. In other words, if someone asked me why I hyphenate “interest-rate hikes”, this is what I’d tell them, and not “Because the style book says so.” The latter answer is worse than wrong; it’s not interesting.
In some cases I might disagree with our style book. I obey it nonetheless, because rulings, even when arbitrary, keep a style consistent, so readers aren’t finding “Web sites” here and “websites” there in the same article. Readers expect and enjoy uniformity as a mark of quality.