When Copy Editors Attack

by Fred Schwarz

With more than two decades of publishing experience, I can confidently state that if there’s anything fussier than a government bureaucrat, it’s a copy editor. Put the two together and you get this: a Federal Highway Administration mandate that street signs must be printed in upper and lower case, not all caps, and in a specific typeface called Clearview. Existing signs that do not comply will have to be replaced.

The idea, supposedly, is that u&lc is easier to read, so drivers will spend less time looking at signs, and this will reduce accidents. That’s true, perhaps, though I’m not sure how it would play out with someone who has trouble reading English, since people tend to learn capitals before lower-case letters. A few weeks ago, in New York’s Penn Station, an Asian-looking man asked me haltingly how to get to Rahway, N.J. I wrote “NJ TRANSIT” on his slip of paper and told him to look for those words on a sign. A few minutes later, I saw him again, looking back and forth between the slip of paper and a sign that said “NJ Transit” — obviously wondering if the two were the same.

Yet even if the advantanges of u&lc are clearly established, there are two ways to fix this problem. You can circulate information about the legibility of street signs and let local highway departments fix it at their own pace and within their own budget, or you can go through the whole bureaucratic rigamarole of developing guidelines, soliciting comments, issuing rules, and certifying compliance. Considering that bureaucrats and copy editors both make a living by creating work for themselves, it’s no surprise that the FHA chose the fusspot-a-rama option.