Here in Editorworld, we keep coming back to thorny debates about what is or isn’t grammatically correct, and our attitudes to such questions.
We ponder split infinitives, dangling modifiers and participles, comma splices, starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending one with a preposition, using ‘less’ with a countable noun, the singular ‘they’, using ‘which’ with a restrictive clause, ‘people that’ as opposed to ‘people who’ …
The (sort of) warring factions
At the extremes, there are two schools of thought. On one side of the fence are the conservative prescriptivists, who swear by whatever they regard as The Rules of Grammar and love to scowl at anyone who breaks them.
Looking sceptically across that fence, often heard shouting ‘Pedant!’, are the more liberal descriptivists. They believe a language is defined by the way it’s actually used, not by how it supposedly should be used, and emphasise how English is continually evolving.
Most prescriptivists – other than little-known peevers ranting on social media and below-the-line message boards – seem to keep a low profile these days, journalist Simon Heffer being one of the exceptions.
Those of a more descriptivist bent are more visible. This year’s Society for Editors and Proofreaders conference featured talks from two eminent ones: Times columnist Oliver Kamm (with his Whitcombe Lecture) and linguist Geoff Pullum (‘Grammar myths: self-defence for copy-editors in a world of bad grammar advice’), both making a big impression. (Admittedly, I missed both of them: Kamm’s because I was several miles away getting my now annual conference injury looked at – a sprained finger joint, following last year’s cut arm – and Pullum’s because I’d seen him speak on a similar subject at the 2015 event.)
Which side is best? Sorry: better
Both sides, as I see it, have their fairly big flaws. The prescriptivists cling to ‘rules’ – cynics call them ‘zombie rules’ – of dubious validity. Some of these, such as not splitting infinitives, seem to be based on a silly over-reverence for Latin. And if there really are definite rules, who has the power to say what they are?
Meanwhile, the descriptivists seem to overlook the trouble that questionable grammar structures can cause, and rely too much on historical usage to justify their lenience. (If, say, we find that somebody wrote ‘could of’ in 1832, will that mean it’s just fine?) They like to cite works by the likes of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, the idea being that if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. But this is a spurious argument, as Kamm’s fellow journalist John Rentoul suggested in a debate with him: great wordsmiths can get away with using suspect grammar, as they have a knack for producing clear, elegant phrasing regardless. (Or is that ‘irregardless’? Only kidding.) Most of us don’t.
Finally, the point
So, what does all this mean for proofreaders and copy-editors? Perhaps the prescriptivist–descriptivist divide is relevant to proofreading, where the emphasis is on checking that the text is ‘correct’, whatever that might mean. We may often need to check with the customer about how to deal with debatable aspects of grammar.
When it comes to copy-editing, though, I see the argument as one great big red herring.
Why? Because the main purpose of copy-editing, surely, is to help the reader by ensuring readability, clarity and flow – not to follow a set of rules (OK, we’ll probably do that as well, to some extent – it just isn’t the primary point of what we do).
We try to give the text a sense of smoothness, avoiding anything that could make the reader pause for a moment and maybe have to read a sentence twice. By doing that, we also help our customer and/or author, by helping to get their meaning across smoothly.
Whether a particular structure or usage is ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’ is beside the point. Even if we consider it ‘acceptable’, it still might be confusing, or at least have a momentary jarring effect on the reader – in which case, why use it? Whether I’m editing a business report or a footballer’s autobiography, I won’t ‘fix’ a split infinitive or a sentence beginning with ‘And’ unless my customer has asked me to follow such a rule.
But if I come across a ‘people that’ or a comma splice, I’ll change it – not because it’s ‘wrong’, but because I think the resulting text will read better. After all, isn’t that what we’re here for?