A very long time ago (in internet terms, that is – 2010), I wrote a post about the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, a sometimes false dichotomy that nonetheless can serve as a basic model of two broad approaches to language use. Put simply:
Descriptivists describe how language is used (and they may infer rules from that data).
Prescriptivists prescribe how language should be used (and they may enforce rules based on authority, tradition, house style, logic, personal preference, etc.).
Despite what you’ll sometimes hear about the ‘usage wars’, it’s not a black and white scenario: the sides overlap. I’m descriptivist in principle, but as an editor–proofreader by trade I wear a prescriptive hat, ensuring that clients’ prose is consistently styled and accords with the current norms of standard English or whatever register is desired in a given context.
When I’m at work, I fix or flag non-standard or questionable usages. When I’m not, I don’t, unless I’m asked. If people are communicating in their natural vernacular, I wouldn’t dream of ‘correcting’ them. It would be misguided and rude. Besides, informal usage is often more colourful (because more varied and less constrained) than standard English.
Non-standard usages don’t bother me. At all. Why would they? I’m a scientist and language lover (and Hiberno-English speaker), not a zealous conformist harbouring fantasies of omnipotence. Typos don’t upset me either – even trivial mistakes can be linguistically interesting.
Sadly there is a false and widespread belief that enthusiasm for grammar means fixation on correctness. This is why some people worry about errors when talking with editors. Granted, some editors are sticklers 24/7, and the fact that ‘grammar’ is commonly thought to include spelling, style and so on compounds the problem.
Prescriptivism is inherently conservative. It errs on the side of caution, saying: That word you’re unsure about? Use it this way – the right way. Whereas descriptivism might say: Here is the evidence. These are the ways the word is used, how that has changed through history, and what different commentators say about it. The rest is up to you. Sometimes writers want prescriptive input: a simple answer (even if misleading), not a complex account of variability. But without context this approach fosters fallacies and dogmas.
Usages don’t go from being incorrect to correct or non-standard to standard overnight. They go through (and sometimes remain in) phases of contention, where they may be considered standard by some authorities or in some populations and not others. When I write about disputed cases on this blog, I point out such discrepancies where they exist; a recent example is like as a conjunction.
In editing, as in usage, grey areas of legitimacy and appropriateness arise routinely. For instance, the author of a book I copy-edited used the word combo in a factual discussion. Based on the text’s type, genre, and voice, among other considerations, I flagged the word for review. I noted that it would give the text a casual, breezy tone, and if this was desired, that was fine, but that combination was available as a more formal – and unimpeachable – alternative.
Regular readers of this blog will know that my linguistic interests include slang, neologisms, and other creative avenues of language use far removed from the vaunted halls of standard usage. From a solely practical point of view I find it helps, when editing fiction especially, to be aware of these trends, even if such words and innovations crop up only seldom, if at all, in the texts I work on.
Because the acceptability of a usage can change over time, editors have a responsibility to stay informed about these shifts. It’s not good enough to reject a usage based on advice from a century-old text like Fowler, astute and witty as it often is, or even from a modern reference if it springs from feeling and not fact. Usage lore is full of dinosaurs like hopefully and over/more than which became standard long before the AP Stylebook saw fit to permit them, which delay served only to confuse people about their true status.
Before the AP Stylebook updated these entries, writers and editors using AP style would have had to reject what were otherwise legitimate items. In general usage and under certain other house styles, sentence-adverbial hopefully and over = more than may be allowed without a second thought. So for editors it’s a question of flexibility, of adapting to local conditions.
This is something of a tangent from a brief chat I had on Twitter with a few editors and language commentators (all of whom I’m fond of and have great respect for). Benjamin Dreyer of Random House, concluding a series of tweets on copy-editing, said he was ‘not much of a descriptivist’, to which Jan Freeman offered a lovely analogy in reply:
(Which comes as a relief to this left-side-driving Irishman.) Ben’s response to Jan is what prompted me to weigh in, and instead of paraphrasing I’ll simply embed a few of the tweets that bear on the topic of editing and language change:
John E. McIntyre agreed on this point, which I also summarised, as follows, in a tangent to the thread above:
Editors are prescriptive by definition, and many would happily call themselves prescriptivist. Outside of work too, some are linguistically conservative by nature, or rather habit. But this is not a necessity for the job, nor, to my mind, does it automatically confer advantage.
We’re a broad and eclectic tribe, capable of adjusting to conditions and (hopefully) of overriding our preferences in the interests of the text at hand and the readers for whom it’s destined. Behind the specific skills we share lie a wealth of personality types, tastes, and attitudes to language variation and change. There’s room for us all.