No Sleep in Brooklyn for the Vigilante Copy Editor

Yesterday’s New York Times features a piece about a vigilante copy editor who roams the sculpture park at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Check out the story here. The vigilante’s mission is to repair the many grammatical and punctuation issues that afflict the placards in front of the artwork. No one knows whether this is the work of one person or a squad of editors, but Jay Dockendorf (who wrote the brief op-doc piece and made a short film on the subject) refers to the vigilante as a vandal.

Is the vigilante a vandal? Perhaps, according to the letter of the law. But the letter of the law does not look kindly on a number of superheroes, and the vigilante copy editor is a superhero for our techno-driven times.

The vigilante takes to the streets by night to right the written wrongs too many of us have come to tolerate. “Appropriate” channels of language enforcement have failed us. The world is inundated with grammar and punctuation errors, and they’re appearing in places that used to be sanctuaries of language. Places like newspapers and published works and even the occasional billboard. The world is also full of people who think errors are perfectly acceptable. People like authors.

Not long ago, I saw a writer berate one of her readers for noticing a typo. This writer was supported by allies, who wondered whether the mistake detracted from the reader’s experience of the book. (I can’t even type that without yelling, “Yes! Of course it did!”) Another writer congratulated herself for not pulling her self-published work back from Amazon after she discovered errors in the finished product. She was pleased not to surrender to her perfectionist tendencies.

That’s a problem, friends.

Writers are professionals. Professionals want their work perfect. Not good enough. Not the best we can manage. Perfect. Free of error. There should be no discussion of whether typos hurt the reader’s experience because there should be no typos. There should be no debate about what to do if you discover an error in your finished product because there should be no error. If you can’t be certain there are no errors – and I describe the kind of certainty editors used to enjoy when they said, “We stand by our reporter and our story” – then you have to send your work to someone who can make you certain.

Errors tell the consumer you just don’t care what the product looks like. They say the reader deserves whatever you dish out. They say the reader is willing to settle for you.

Errors say you didn’t bother to give the reader your best. Errors say laziness is acceptable.

And now, a lone vigilante in Brooklyn is taking a stand.

The vigilante isn’t perfect. He occasionally moves beyond clear grammatical error into the shadowy realms of word choice and phrasing. This is understandable. The presence of clear error invites the search for differences of opinion.

But whose fault is that, really? Letter-perfect writing wouldn’t tempt the vigilante to overstep. The solution for us writers is simple. We have to get it right. If it’s not right the first time, we have to get it right by press time. That used to be the least anyone expected of us, and we need to take up that standard again. People pay us to give a damn. If we would have the reader’s respect, it’s time we were willing to work for it.

Otherwise, when night falls over our work, the vigilante may decide we’re next. He’s got to be running out of placards.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

4 thoughts on “No Sleep in Brooklyn for the Vigilante Copy Editor

  • He’s a copycat corrector! Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson roamed the country correcting grammatical errors and typos several years ago. They published “The Great Typo Hunt” in 2010. And they too got in a bit of trouble when they corrected a historical sign at…I don’t remember. It might have been the Grand Canyon! It’s a great read for anyone who abhors our culture’s daily slide into grammar anarchy! Great post, Lexi!

    • Deck and Herson chimed in to say that they no longer approve of clandestine copy edits. That definitely reminded me of Batman. “If Batman is helping us, why is he wearing a mask?” Nothing new under the sun, right?

      I do want a copy of that book now, though. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post!

Comments are closed.