Donna Tartt on language standardisation

Slate has published an interesting conversation between author Donna Tartt and her editor Michael Pietsch. As well as discussing the mechanics of the author–editor relationship, they touch on a topic of recurring fascination to me: the standardisation of language.

Since English was largely standardised centuries ago by early printers and lexicographers such as Caxton and Johnson, the process has continued through, among others, editors who codify formal written English and so serve as unofficial gatekeepers of the prestige dialect.

Tartt is “troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage”. While acknowledging the importance of house style in journalism, she laments its effects on literary expression:

I’m not saying that the writer’s voice is always the highest standard; only that a lot of writers who are fine stylists and whose work I love wouldn’t make it past a contemporary copy editor armed with the Chicago Manual, including some of the greatest writers and stylists of the 19th and 20th century. It’s not as if we’re the French, with the Academy, striving to keep the language pure—fine to correct honest mistakes, but quite apart from questions of punctuation and grammar—of using punctuation and grammar for cadence—English is such a powerful and widely spoken language precisely because it’s so flexible, and capacious: a catchall hybrid that absorbs and incorporates everything it comes into contact with. Lexical variety, eccentric constructions and punctuation, variant spellings, archaisms, the ability to pile clause on clause, the effortless incorporation of words from other languages: flexibility, and inclusiveness, is what makes English great; and diversity is what keeps it healthy and growing, exuberantly regenerating itself with rich new forms and usages. Shakespearean words, foreign words, slang and dialect and made-up phrases from kids on the street corner: English has room for them all. And writers—not just literary writers, but popular writers as well—breathe air into English and keep it lively by making it their own, not by adhering to some style manual that gets handed out to college Freshmen in a composition class.

Few would claim that standardisation has resulted in a net loss for language; rather, it has enhanced communication around the world. But I sympathise with Tartt’s substantive point. In creative writing in particular, editors should allow room for authorial personality, judgement and experimentation before automatically applying rules and restrictions that may be unnecessary and even counterproductive.

Standardisation feeds conformism, and legitimate variation is too often removed and censured in the service of streamlining norms of style. Some of the rules and regulations editors enforce are helpful; others are not. Beware especially those with one style guide and an accompanying fondness for dogma.

It makes sense for house styles to simplify things by choosing one form and outlawing variants – but there’s no reason to extend this action beyond its natural orbit. Yet it happens constantly. Erroneous belief in “One Right Way” is prevalent among amateur grammarians and even editors, and it discourages linguistic innovation and natural expression.

Of course, it cuts both ways. I’m not enamoured of the non-standard would of, could of construction sometimes used in novels. But that’s because I’m dubious about how necessary it is in marking dialectal or uneducated speech, not because it’s non-standard.

And since seeing the modal+of construction in books by such attentive writers as Sylvia Plath, Dashiell Hammett and Patrick O’Brian, I’m getting more used to it. They’re surely entitled to choose it “for texture”, to borrow a phrase Tartt uses, though they probably had to stet it to save it from an editor’s red-pen instincts.

I’ll stop here before I go any further off track. Go to Slate for the rest of Tartt and Pietsch’s conversation.

12 Responses to Donna Tartt on language standardisation

  1. Roger says:

    I read elsewhere that editing was Stalin’s other vocation.

  2. bevrowe says:

    c/would of seem to be the gripe of the year. In fact, you cannot justify their use in print as they no better represent the colloquial pronunciation than do c/would’ve. I think this may be one that f-m prescriptivists find hard to defend.

  3. Interesting article. It makes me think of Deborah Cameron’s statements about copyeditors in Verbal Hygiene and this side-by-side comparison of the British and American versions of Harry Potter. So many of the changes just pointlessly fuss with matters of house style.

  4. Stan says:

    Roger: An interesting article, thank you. (I read it last week, and may include it in my next language-links post.)

    Bev: That was my initial feeling about it, but a couple of comments on my would of post mentioned dialects where the sound was /ɑv/ rather than /əv/. So I’ve been cutting it more slack.

    Jonathon: The Harry Potter page was in my head too (I tweeted it this morning), and like you I was struck by the triviality of the changes. But there’d be a pedants’ revolt if those minor distinctions weren’t observed.

  5. Jan Freeman says:

    “House style” makes perfect sense for a newspaper or magazine, where you want “ambience” and “Quaddafi” spelled only one way, but I’ve always wondered why book editors — fiction especially — should be concerned with enforcing it throughout a list. Surely readers don’t mind (or notice) if one Random House author prefers Chanukah and another spells it Hanukkah?

  6. A while ago on the television I noticed a clear example of “could of” being pronounced as such by a British speaker, and of course I looked to see if the episode was available online as documentation. It wasn’t (at least not from here), so I shrugged and got on with life. But if you fancy some linguistic research, the citation is somewhere in the inaugural episode of Beat the Ancestors.

  7. marc leavitt says:

    As an editor and writer (books, magazines, newspapers), I agree with Jan Freeman.

  8. Stan says:

    Jan: Exactly. And the push towards uniformity spreads further: I’ve had editors tell me I should adopt American-style punctuation on Twitter.

    Adrian: Thanks for the datum. It’s unlikely I’ll ever happen upon that show, so I’ll probably just take your word for it and listen out for more examples.

    Marc: Glad to hear it. I don’t think many book readers care about negligible shibboleths, though there are good reasons for enforcing them in newspapers.

  9. Jan: I think the motivation there might be simply to save the editor some time. Instead of having to decide how to spell Chanukah in each book, they simply make the decision once and then apply that decision automatically to every future book. It saves the editor a little time in drawing up a style sheet for each project, but of course it’s not without a cost.

  10. […] read up; it’s not long. And for another interesting recap, jump over to Sentence First and read what Stan Carey has to say about this […]

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