Sentence and Sensibility September 2007

Consistently Stylish, or Stylishly Consistent?

The Atlantic's copy chief on why the magazine treats punctuation as a period piece

In every human endeavor, fashions change. Hemlines swoop like swallows, theories come and go; why should language be an exception? The Atlantic Monthly, in its 150 years, has seen many fashion changes in copyediting—in, that is, the agreed-on “best” way to put words on the page. Copy editors, as a breed, help formulate grammatical and typographical standards, and then try to uphold them, always reaching for consistency (though not a foolish one).

During The Atlantic’s 150th-anniversary celebration, our reprints from the archives have raised questions about consistency. Of course, we aim to be consistent; but consistent with what? Do we set the story exactly as it first appeared, or style it (in spelling, punctuation, etc.) to match the rest of the current issue? Except for standardizing the ellipses, we’ve opted to follow the originals faithfully, though several typographic conventions have changed over our history.

To illustrate, here’s a snippet from an article by Charles Rumford Walker in our August 1924 issue:

‘Besides,’—Mrs. Badger’s tone grew hoarse; she had not heard Mr. Steffens’s evidence,—‘he ’s a Democrat!’

Clearly, Emily Dickinson was not alone in teaming the dash with the comma, but no one does it today. We no longer leave a space within a contraction (he’s, not he ’s). Perhaps most striking, we have abandoned the British handling of quotation marks (‘I heard him say “Bother,” ’ added Pooh) for its opposite, setting double quotes around speech and single quotes around any quotation inside another (“ ‘Pop!’ goes the weasel,” she remarked).

Reasons for changes in copyediting fashions are sometimes elusive. The Atlantic switched from double quotes to single in 1910—maybe to save space, ink, or labor—and then, despite the cost in ink and paper (there was a war on!), switched back in 1942.

What didn’t change then, and hasn’t changed since, is the copy editor’s purpose: Help the reader. We apply our agreed-on styles to make the writing as clear as possible, and to help the writer and the reader connect.

Marge duMond is the copy chief of The Atlantic.
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