In a kind of ironic twist, there is no universal agreement among copy editors (or copy-editors or copyeditors) on how the compound words that label the editors and their activity should be spelled. In fact, by the very nature of the profession, universal agreement would only be possible in practical terms if all commonly accepted English dictionaries (and style guides) prescribed the same spelling.

Typically, when a compound word is first used it takes an open form, like ice cream, then a hyphenated form, like jack-in-the-box, and finally a closed form, like doorknob. (At the moment, I can’t really imagine ice cream becoming either ice-cream or icecream, nor can I imagine jack-in-the-box becoming just jackinthebox. However, they are still good examples of the different forms a compound can take.) An example of something with a clear history of evolving through this process is online. When it was first used, it was the open compound on line, then it became the hyphenated compound on-line, and now it takes its current closed compound form.

The title of this blog post not only pokes fun at the game show Jeopardy!, but is also a tongue-in-cheek commentary on variable ways that editing-related compounds could be spelled. The expression can be satisfied by any one of several word spelling variations, including, but not limited to, copy edit, copy-edit, copyedit, copy editing, copy-editing, copyediting, copy editor, copy-editor, and copyeditor..

If you look at different dictionaries, you’ll find examples of some of these variations. In fact, dictionaries are not even consistent with the spelling between the related words. For instance, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the word copy editor (open compound) yet also defines the word copyedit (closed compound).

Based on this, copy editors who rely on Merriam-Webster would likely say that their job is to copyedit. However, copy editors who rely on the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed.) would say that their job is to copy-edit. Humorously, if the same copy editor is editing one text for an American audience and another text for a Canadian audience, they could be said to be both copyediting and copy-editing at the same time.

Most accepted dictionaries (and style guides) agree that if you edit copy, you are a copy editor. However, there are some exceptions—such as, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2nd ed.), The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2nd ed.). These three sources all say it should be spelled copyeditor. What’s interesting here is having a style guide that disagree with (most) dictionaries.

At present, we are stuck with different spellings and inconsistencies. But will this last? Given my understanding, I find it reasonable to expect that, at some point in the future, all copyeditors will copyedit. I think that actually makes progressive sense, and maintains a logical consistency between each of the related words. If I didn’t feel a certain sense of ridicule lurking in the wings, I might actually adopt these spellings for my personal use.