Never mind the serial comma. If you want to see a group of copyeditors go toe to toe, ask them whether copyedit is one word or two. Chances are you’ll get two very strong opinions, neither side allowing that the other might have a reasonable argument.
This particular issue has been discussed several times in the pages of the Copyediting newsletter. When the newsletter went from being Copy Editor to Copyediting in the October–November 2007 issue, then-editor Wendi Nichols decided to go with the one-word spelling rather than the two. She made her argument for it and gave space to those who favored leaving it as two words through the voice of Bill Walsh.
No matter which side of the argument you stand on, however, there’s a relevant point that we’re ignoring in our battle to be “right”: two words becoming one word is a natural, if messy, process. Writes Bryan Garner in Modern American Usage, “The normal process in modern English is for separate words used habitually to become hyphenated, then fused into a single word (e.g., to day became to-day in the 19th century and then today in the 20th).”
Language evolves. Even copyeditors, correcting all their peeves to their hearts’ content, can’t stop language change any more than we can stop the ocean tide coming in. In his new book, What Language Is, John McWhorter writes that it is “general silliness” to resist a “language’s moving on as all languages always have … No one in Milan walks around annoyed that people aren’t speaking Latin.”
But copyeditors are paid to make content consistent and understandable to the audience. If language changes slowly and unevenly, and the resources that record them—our dictionaries, grammars, and usage guides—change even more slowly and unevenly, what are copyeditors to do? A word such as copyedit is in flux; it has more than one accepted spelling and insisting that one preferred spelling is the only right spelling doesn’t get the job done.
“If you reject momento as a misspelling, on what grounds do you base your objection?” asks Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage in its spelling discussion. “Certainly it is unetymological, but so is confidante, so is island, so is scissors. A better basis for deciding whether to use or reject a variant spelling is prevalent current use; most people spell it memento.”
The trick, then, is discovering prevalent current use. A copyeditor’s first line of defense is always to check the house dictionary or style guide. It’s the easy path: just follow what your dictionary says for any word with variant spellings. If both are listed, go with the first one. Or the most popular one. Or the one that strikes your fancy.
Not satisfied with that, you could go with the spelling that is supported by the most resources—or the most influential resources or your favorite resources. Take a poll. For example, copyedit is supported by The American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and The Chicago Manual of Style. Copy edit is recommended by Webster’s New World Dictionary, The Associated Press Stylebook, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.
Or you could choose to do your own research, which is becoming easier all the time. Sift through raw data in Google News, Google Books (narrowing results to modern day), and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). All aggregate words in their edited context. Each use of copy edit and copyedit was considered by, well, a copyeditor. Choose the spelling that returns the most hits or that returns the most hits within a specific parameter that matches your text.
No matter how you choose, you’re going to have to choose something. Pick a measurement that you feel comfortable defending and go measure. Then be consistent, and tolerate others’ choices.
“Languages are messy,” writes McWhorter, “it’s part of being the end product of sound changes, drifting meanings, and words coming together to make new ones. What’s new in a language is neither a mistake nor subject, in a logical sense, to condemnation as unlikeable. It is inherent to languages to be always gradually becoming other ones—and that, ladies and gentlemen, is never an orderly process.”
What guidelines do you follow to deal with variant spellings? Share them in the comments section below.
This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, August 22, 2011.