Tag Archives: editing

Prescriptivist or descriptivist?

I’m once again serving as a guest expert for a friend’s copyediting course. The students in these courses often ask me interesting questions about points of grammar. But this time, one of them asked me a broader question – or, rather, two of them:

Would you describe yourself as more of a prescriptivist or descriptivist?

What value do you see in each of these approaches to language? 

Since you’re here reading this, you probably know what the difference is between prescriptivist and descriptivist: a prescriptivist is someone who believes in imposition of authoritative prescriptions on language usage – fans of Lynne Truss, for instance, and avid users of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – while a descriptivist is someone who believes in observing and describing how people actually use language and not holding stern judgmental positions on it. Most modern dictionaries are descriptivist: they include a word if it’s in common use – including, for instance, impactful and misunderestimate – and they try to include all senses that are in common use. Some people believe they should be prescriptivist and forbid certain words and senses of words.

Since I have a graduate degree in linguistics, it’s no surprise that by disposition I’m a descriptivist. I love language in all its forms, and I observe how it’s used in each context. But that doesn’t mean I have an “anything goes” approach in my work as an editor. After all, I’m editing a text that is part of a specific genre and is meant to have a particular effect on a certain audience. I use my observations about how people use language (and how they think about it, which is another important issue) to decide what choices of words and phrasing will work best. 

Generally, of course, there’s plenty of latitude – more than some people think. But we can recognize that, for instance, “Go ask your mommy” will have one effect in a children’s book and quite another in a political speech. Your elementary school teachers may have said “‘Ain’t’ ain’t a word,” but aside from being obviously false (the sentence would be incoherent if it weren’t a word; it would be like saying “‘Zzblgt’ zzblgt a word”), all that does is position ain’t as a very powerful mark of “bad” English (informal, nonstandard, folksy – which is also taken as frank and honest). So in an annual report, if you’re giving forecasts on projects, you would have “It isn’t coming by January” (or even “It is not coming by January”), but you may make use of “It ain’t coming by January” as a momentary excursion in style if you want to convey a particular (refreshing, informal) frankness, which might position the ostensible writer (e.g., the CEO) as a “regular guy.”

So, on the one hand, the idea that you must not ever use ain’t just ain’t true. But on the other hand, we can thank such teachers and others like them for maintaining that opprobrium, which gives the word such power. Likewise, you can have a huge effect by slipping in a vulgarity in the right context, and vulgarities maintain their power by having some people constantly treat them as the most awful things.

In that way, we need prescriptions to give us rules to push against, and to know where we stand; anyway, we will always have them, because some people just love rules (regarding rule-seeking behaviour, see “That old bad rule-seeking behaviour”). Beyond that, it’s useful to have prescriptions just to help us decide what to do where – I regularly look things up in the Chicago Manual of Style, thereby saving me from having to justify my choices on my own account and ensuring that my choices will be consistent with choices in other similar books, which also helps make the reading go smoother.

But many of the things that prescriptivists focus on the most have little to do with consistency or clarity. In fact, that’s probably why they focus on them so much. Someone once said “School board politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small,” and the same goes with grammatical and lexical prescriptions: the ones that people get the most exercised about are precisely ones that make the least difference in clarity or effectiveness – which frees them up to function almost entirely as social shibboleths, signifiers of who is “the right sort.” Grammar peevery is just using the rule-seeking instinct to license social aggression while giving a plausible excuse. One of my favourite articles that I’ve written goes into this: “Why all English speakers worry about slipping up.”

So, in short, while many linguists are simply hard-set against prescriptivists, I have a more complex position. In some ways, I am by profession a prescriptivist: I enforce prescriptions within specific contexts – though those prescriptions are often made on the basis of descriptive observation. On the other hand, I don’t correct people’s grammar unless they’re paying me to do it, and I don’t think grammar is a useful indicator of character or intelligence; some very magnanimous and insightful people are not too tidy with grammar, and some people who have perfect grammar are obtuse and obnoxious. I don’t enjoy the presence of outspoken prescriptivists, but I’m sure we will always have them; and they fill a role, modelling a specific idea of propriety that we can choose to flaunt or flout as we fancy.

Editors’ anthems

A few days ago, Mark Allen of That Word Chat tweeted a request for an international editors’ anthem. So of course I made one.

No I didn’t. I made two. Because why not.

I decided that it should use a well-known existing tune, because otherwise it wouldn’t catch on. It’s not as though I can legislate it. And I decided that Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” from the last movement of his ninth symphony, would work well. 

But I happen also to be fond of Parry’s “Jerusalem,” a setting of a poem by William Blake, and I couldn’t resist doing something on that too. Just as a back-up, you know. The words are a bit unusual, but it’s not exactly the only anthem to phrase itself as a series of questions (looking at you, “Star-Spangled Banner”). I originally wrote the second verse in “we” and “us” terms, but really, editing is a one-person-at-a-time job, so I switched it to “I” and “me” – which matches the original more closely anyway.

I would have posted them sooner, but of course I had to record them so you could sing along, and it was a few days before I had the chance. If you don’t like the sound of my voice (with tons of studio effects), just sing louder to drown me out.

Apologies for the key of the Beethoven one – it’s a bit high, I think. But that’s Beethoven’s fault.

Ode to Editing

(to the tune of “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven)

Joyful, joyful, we will edit,
Making language clear and clean,
Seeking virtue more than credit,
Helping you say what you mean.
We work magic with words and grammar,
Polishing sense and adding style,
Weaving gravitas and glamour,
Giving wisdom with a smile.

If you write it, we will read it,
Watching closely what you say,
Making fixes where you need it,
Working hard to earn our pay:
Paraphrasing, trimming and moving,
By paragraph and line by line,
Sense and sentences improving
So your words will truly shine!

The Manuscript

(to the tune of “Jerusalem” by Parry)

And did these hands, in limited time,
Trim twenty thousand words to five,
And did they fix a dodgy rhyme,
And did they keep weak prose alive,
And did the grammar and the words
Show marks of art and learnèd crafts,
And was a manuscript turned to gold
From all those dark and leaden drafts?

Bring me my pen, my laptop too,
Send me an email with the file,
Bring me a mug – no, bring me two –
Bring me my manual of style!
I will not cease from mental work,
My wit and wisdom still unbowed,
Till I have fully edited
Your manuscript to make you proud!

Backing track of “And Did Those Feet” is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Creator: Richard MS Irwin, www.hymnswithoutwords.com.

But what about plural “they”?

This article originally appeared on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association.

Singular “they” is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. There is no decent reason to require that third-person singular pronouns—and only third-person singular pronouns—always specify gender. “He” has never truly covered men and women equally, though starting in the 1800s some people tried to insist that it did, and constructions such as “he or she” or “s/he” are clunky at best. So it’s natural to accept officially what has been an informal workaround for centuries: extending the plural pronoun to cover the singular.

It’s not the first time that English has done this. As early as the 1200s, we started using the plural “you” for individuals of higher status, and by the 1800s, rather than continuing to specify respect—or lack of it—in pronouns, we had almost entirely stopped using the lower-status singular “thou.” If we can use a plural form in place of a singular to erase a status-based distinction, we can certainly do it to erase a gender-based distinction.

But there is one problem that we run into with singular “they,” a problem we have already encountered with singular “you”: how do you make clear when it’s plural?

That’s still a useful distinction, and it’s not always obvious from context. Consider a sentence such as “The CEO met the VPs at a bar, but they drank too much and started singing karaoke, so they left.” If specifying the gender of the CEO is out of the question, to clarify who “they” refers to you’ll need to rewrite it to avoid the pronouns—and if it’s a longer narration, that gets clunkier and clunkier. So what do we do?

Well, what did we do with “you”? For a time—quite a while, in fact, from the late 1600s through the late 1700s—singular “you” got singular verbs: “you was,” “you is,” “you does.” It was so common, Robert Lowth inveighed against it in his 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar. Even Doctor Johnson used “you was.” Will we try the same kind of thing with “they”—saying “they is” and “they was”? A few people have tried it, but such usages are already strongly associated with “uneducated” English, and so they’re unlikely to become commonplace. And “you was” didn’t last, after all—Doctor Johnson and everyone else ultimately switched to “you were” even for the singular.

So how do we specify plural “you”? You know how: we add further plural specification to it. In the US South, “y’all” or “you-all” is very common, and it’s spreading; in other places, “yous,” “youse,” “you ’uns,” “yiz,” and “yinz” are local favourites. In many other places, we say “you guys” or something similar when we need to make the distinction. And I’ll wager we’ll end up doing the same kind of thing with plural “they.” “They-all” seems readily available; “those ones” and “those guys” are likely to show up; differential usages of “themselves” and “themself” are already in use and may be extended; and others may appear—I’ll be watching eagerly. And in some contexts, for added clarity, something like “the one” might be used for the singular.

What do we do as editors, here and now? We keep an eye on how popular use is changing. When we can, we use our positions to influence it a little. And, as always, we use our judgement to find what’s clearest and most effective for the audience of the text we’re working on. 

A day in the life of an editor

So you want to be an editor? Are you ready for the editor’s life? Are you ready to hoist your pen (I mean computer), haul up the manuscript, and brave the waves of prose?

Or maybe you’re already an editor, but you’re in-house and want to try freelance, or vice versa?

Let me tell you how to live a day in the life of an editor, in-house versus freelance.

I should say, first, that I worked for more than 20 years in-house in corporate environments, 18 of that in the same company. Then I left (of my own accord, I’ll have you know, and they were sad to see me go; they remain a client of mine). Now I am a freelance editor, and have been for a few years. (I also edited freelance on the side while working in-house during the day, but that’s not the same thing at all.) On top of all that, I know quite a few other editors, and occasionally I hear from them about how they live their lives. So I’m in a good position to talk about what your day will look like as a professional editor, whether in-house or freelance.

Of course other editors will read this and say “You missed something!” or “That’s not how my day goes!” or “Who do you think you are?” I look forward to seeing their comments about their own experience, and you should read those too.

Right. Let’s go. Here’s the agenda.

  1. How to get out of bed
  2. How to have breakfast
  3. How to dress
  4. How to commute
  5. How to plan your day and week
  6. How to manage your desk
  7. How to decide what work to take on
  8. How to track time, bill, and get paid
  9. How to socialize
  10. How to take a vacation
  11. How to spend non-work time
  12. How to go to bed
  13. How to be an editor
Continue reading

Advice to a beginning editor

I am regularly invited as a guest expert in an online editing course taught by a friend. This time around, one of the students asked “Do you have any tips for aspiring editors or editors that are just getting started on their first project? Also, what resources are some of your holy grail must-haves?” Here is my advice for her.

Editors who are just starting out often have a combination of overzealousness and insecurity: they won’t ask about things they should ask about, but will ask about things that are actually covered in the style sheet or standard references. Remember: whatever document you’re working on, it’s part of a certain genre for a certain publication in a certain field, and there will be things that are standard or assumed in that context that you may not know about yet. If a thing seems weirdly wrong or nonstandard, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. But also don’t be afraid to look it up and look at other examples from the publication in question.

Many eager editors have “hills to die on”: points of usage that are dogmatically beyond compromise for them. Having a hill to die on is a great way to be slaughtered in full view of the neighbourhood. Beginning editors shouldn’t have them. Experienced editors also shouldn’t have them, but the more experienced you are, the more you know that anyway. Any position you take you should be able to support, and if you can’t persuade the client, (a) there may be a good reason for it, and (b) it’s their document with their name on it and their money they’re paying for it, so at a certain point it’s better to lay down your arms and go to the pub.

You should get to know the preferred style of the publisher you’re working with, of course, but standard guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style ought to be part of your repertoire and you should refer to them for advice as needed (advice! not law! unless it’s in the style sheet). I also like the New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage. Some people love the Canadian Press and Associated Press guides; as far as I’m concerned, if your client is a newspaper or is specifying CP or AP style, go with it, but otherwise it will have advice and take positions that may be inappropriate for your document. These styles have been developed for a specific genre, and there are debates that can be had over whether they’re even optimal for that genre. You will find that some people who have taken journalism courses tend to think that CP or AP is the absolute God-given legislation and optimal for all contexts. They are not right about this.

I’m a big advocate of studying at least some linguistics, but not everyone is in a position to take an intro course. It’s important to know how all the machinery of the language actually works, though. It’s very, very important not to heed the self-important counsel of curmudgeons, peevers, “grammar Nazis” (a term that should be abolished), and similar sorts. Stay far, far away from Lynne Truss and Nevile Gwynne and anyone of that ilk. You can identify them by their habit of declaring that well-known and well-respected authors are wrong on points of grammar, and by their use of such terms as “barbaric” and their endorsement of such acts as vandalizing signage. None of this has anything to do with clear communication; it’s all dominance behaviour, classism, brutishness, and schoolyard punkery in a gabardine suit.

On the other hand, there are authors who are well informed and worth a read for enlightenment and entertainment; you need not take everything they say as law, but it is at least well founded. They tend to be experienced professional editors. These include ones such as Emmy Favilla in her A World Without “Whom,” Mary Norris in Between You & Me (which is also autobiographical), and Benjamin Dreyer in Dreyer’s English. Other editors who have written books worth turning to include June Casagrande and the late, great Bill Walsh. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list! For the art of being an editor, read The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller.

That should be a good start! The good news is that you never stop learning. (Or, if you do, stop editing.)

But is it art?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

Is writing art?

And if it is, what is editing?

If we say writing is “artful,” or “artistic,” or “an art,” we mean that we appreciate it aesthetically and admire it for the skill it evinces. But if we say not “writing is an art” but “writing is art” – or “this text is a work of art” – we connect it to an identity that is simultaneously nebulous and overloaded. Continue reading

The Editor’s Carols

After my previous editorial music video, I had a couple of requests for some Christmas songs. Which is good, because I was going to do it anyway. Here’s my medley – quick and dirty, because I’m too busy editing to spend all day on it. (I’m not lying: I’m fully booked – editing full books!)

How to write gleefully

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

There are times when you want to make your prose more lively – if not flagrantly flippant then at least glancingly gleeful. Your words could land with a thump or splash or flit by with a twirl, but they must be sprightly. You want to write like a child. Well, no, not like a child – children aren’t very good writers; their sense of sentence structure is a bit squishy and scrawny – but like a child would write if a child had the skill of an adult. You want to be extra expressive. Continue reading

Just for reference

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the blog of Editors Toronto.

If you edit academic books or articles, you probably spend a lot of time tidying up references. Sometimes as much time as editing the entire rest of the text. First, you have to pick your style: Chicago (note or name-date), MLA, APA, or, in the sciences, AMA or Vancouver. Then, you have to make everything consistent with it, to the extent possible. On top of that, you may have to look up the sources to double-check them.

I’ve edited medical continuing-education presentations that had no bibliographies and would cite some sources as just, for instance, “Heinz & Wong 2013.” I would have to find the rest of the citation—and I would, nearly every time, with a single search. Which means that anyone else who wanted to know would also be able to find it as quickly. Our citation standards were developed before the wonderful world of high-powered search engines. If we can find the source from an incomplete or inaccurate citation, how much of this tidying up is necessary? Continue reading

Novel medical treatments

To go with my presentation “Translating medicalese into everyday English,” here’s the article that I wrote for The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

People with serious health problems are often subject to novel treatments. But that shouldn’t mean being treated like they’re in a novel. Continue reading