Reconciling descriptivism with editing

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.

woody and buzz lightyear toy story meme - disputed usages

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.

38 Responses to Reconciling descriptivism with editing

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    Stan, thanks, again, for your discussion about language usage and the inclusion of selected tweets (especially since I don’t tweet). As I read your post, I thought of employees (all races and principally low socio-economic status) who must code switch in order to survive on a job and be accepted in many social contexts, regional speakers of a language that is not valued by the dominant society, teachers and students who struggle to teach and to learn a language (especially in order to pass a test and to secure post-secondary school admission and employment), and my sense that some people seem comfortable debating the flexible versus the inflexible use of language, since those debaters don’t seem influenced by the need to follow customs and standards that dictate the norm. Often, those who discuss the dynamic nature of language also seem to be members of those classes and groups that authorize the norm for formal contexts. (At least, that’s my lingering opinion, despite the addition of informal uses of language, such as slang and rap, that have been integrated into the mainstream through informal interactions and commercial usage.) I enjoy reading comments such as yours today; however, I remain acutely aware that such freedom to explore the expansive meaning and use of language is not necessarily granted to all in any society. One example of my point is the conclusion in some states in the USA that students need more instruction in writing (typically a post-assessment conclusion), which suggests a prescriptive approach (my personal and professional preference) to teaching and learning. Effective writing supports a frequent goal of education today, which is to prepare students for college, career, and citizenship. Business communication and academic writing usually require writing for a defined purpose. Writing for a purpose typically means following an inflexible standard of writing that advances that defined purpose. By secondary school in the USA, students frequently write for a purpose that advances each student’s prospects for post-secondary college, career, and citizenship. Thus, today’s discussion in your post is interesting and informative, but the reality most K-12 teachers face is much more restrictive. I could be wrong. Thanks for “listening.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Vinetta. I’m lucky to enjoy the privileges I do, including the sociolinguistic one of being a native-English speaker blessed with a decent education. Schooling necessarily instructs children in standard English, and I think there has been a general trend away from deploring non-standard dialects and towards acknowledging their appropriateness in non-formal (i.e., most) contexts.
      Children learn to code-switch and often grow up bidialectal, ideally with no hang-ups about their native speech. But I’m reminded of the unedifying Ebonics controversy in California which led to a reasonable pedagogical proposal rooted in students’ use of AAVE being abandoned because of fundamental misunderstanding of dialect and the politics that lie behind it. This is all a bit off-topic, though, so I’ll stop there.

      • Vinetta Bell says:

        Thanks for your response, Stan. I diverged as well. Sometimes, I’m prone to reflect beyond the topic and point being made.

  2. Yes! well said! when proofreading or editing we leave our personal preferences aside and do the job. you can be a descriptivist at heart but still know how to make the text conform to the conventions of standard English.

    (though I’m not in the same place on the spectrum as you are. I’m a semi reformed prescriptivist – I twitch badly when I see typos, and have to exercise much self restraint. but at the same time I love the way the English language keeps evolving, and rejoice in the creativity of neologisms, and in the huge variety of different registers and different dialects. so I’m prescriptive when I see “stationary” instead of “stationery”, but I happily use new forms like “because noun”, because yay living language!)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Meirav. One of the more beguiling aspects of linguistic mistakes is how they can end up being ‘correct’, either fully standard, like the word umpire, or locally appropriate like teh in lolspeak. So I prefer to reserve judgement!
      (An even earlier post I wrote, in 2009, was on stationary/stationery confusion, prompted by a stationery company that misspelled it on their stationery products. The words overlap etymologically, but that’s not an excuse: a simple mnemonic should suffice to keep them distinct.)

      • Oh yes, I’ve definitely had those egg-on-face moments, when “correcting” something and finding that it was actually correct – just in a dialect I’m not familiar with. So I do try to bear that in mind. It’s just that yesterday I saw an incorrect reference to “mundane things like stationary” (sic) in a Smithsonian article online, and that got my inner proofreader into rant mode :)

      • Stan Carey says:

        Edited prose from reputable institutions should ideally be free of error, it’s true, but given the pace and pressures of modern publishing it’s understandable that typos creep in. I read an article in the Guardian last week with half a dozen basic errors, but it’s not worth the damage to my blood pressure to get too angry about this: I just alerted them on Twitter and a sub-editor fixed the mistakes.

      • Oh well, the Guardian is kind of known for that…

        Good to hear that tweets can work well for this sort of thing. Maybe I should try that next time.

  3. paulnance says:

    Can prescriptivist apply only to standard English, and primarily to written standard English? Would you, for example, offer prescriptions (or proscriptions) concerning another Hibernian’s use of Hiberno-English? If not, prescriptivism has a much narrower range than descriptivism.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I would say it can apply to any variety of English. Most of the time prescriptivism is geared towards standard usage, but other local norms sometimes need to be enforced too. For example, I’ve proofread novels in Hiberno-English that required some fixes to usages characteristic of that dialect. Nor need it be solely a matter for writing: anyone who speaks on radio or TV invites criticism from the public about their use of language.

  4. Tom Freeman says:

    I think there’s something in Ben’s point about copyeditors keeping a few years behind the times.
    Most of the organisations that use copyeditors are likely to want a style that isn’t right at the edge of language change. So in practice, most copyeditors would be right to aim for s style that’s a bit behind the times.
    Obviously there are exceptions, such as for marketing or advertising (depending on the campaign) and for newer publishers that want to be up-to-the-minute (Buzzfeed springs to mind).

    • Stan Carey says:

      I can see what you and Ben are getting at, I think, but my point is that it’s not necessary to be behind the times. Would you be a better copy-editor if you were less aware of current slang and emerging grammatical change? I don’t think such knowledge impinges on a good editor’s ability to recognise what is and isn’t appropriate in a given context. They can savour (and even use) the latest linguistic fads and still, when editing, apply a more traditional style without difficulty. And, as you suggest, it’s a positive advantage to be familiar with current trends in usage if one is editing for fashionable new publishers.

      • Tom Freeman says:

        I totally agree: I definitely want to know about current trends (just as I want to know about obscure usage superstitions). By ‘behind the times’ I mean how you act, not what you know.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Right: we’re agreed then! I don’t think Ben was referring to how you act (i.e., while editing), but it’s possible I misinterpreted.

      • bcd1958 says:

        In a word: I agree. (OK, two words.)

        In more words: As much as I sometimes pose and posture as hidebound, in real life I’ve always got my eye on new ways of doing and saying things, with an eye toward helping them along and endorsing them. That said: If I could say it in Greek or Latin, I would, but I like to make haste slowly.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Ben: Not just your eye but your fingers, I’ve noticed, in tweets that adopt or play with novel usages. The combination of modish formulae and forbearing attitude, the one tugging loose but restrained by care for propriety and absolute attention to detail, can be a joy to behold.

  5. bcd1958 says:

    [As, I realize after the fact, I already said.]

  6. Excellent post, Stan. I’d actually argue that all people are naturally both prescriptivist and descriptivist. We identify norms (whether consciously or unconsciously) and then adhere to them. Even people like Mr. Dreyer who insist that they’re not descriptivists are probably pretty good at identifying language norms and then deciding whether or not to adhere to them.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a good point, Jonathon, and further confirmation of the degree to which the two states overlap. Despite my accounts of how I have a foot in both camps (or at last a couple of toes on the prescriptive side), I’m probably guilty of oversimplifying things by using the dichotomy as a shorthand or starting point.

      • I think it’s just really hard to fully disentangle the two, especially when it comes to actual practice. In theory, sure, you can talk about one without the other, but it all becomes messy when you start talking about how people behave.

  7. thomasthethinkengine says:

    Prescriptivism is pretty appealling to people at a certain level of linguistic development. You need to know the rules before you can break them, and at the point you’re learning them, seeing them broken can cause an exciting “gotcha” feeling and a desire to show off one’s knowledge/reinforce one’s power etc.

    Some people never grow into this phase, (including most likely a lot of people who have low linguistic skills, and also linguistically capable people with low need to show off, (many of whom are probably women)).

    Some never grow out of it.

    Some are jovial and benevolent descriptivists right up until we’re interacting with someone we don’t like. Then we can get a bit hissy.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s true, language use is often a scapegoat for more personal judgements. I think it’s common for people to complain about this or that usage as a way to complain about the people with whom they associate it. The solution is to stop judging language or people.

  8. Descriptivist… Prescriptivist…? Jings, I had no idea that I could be either. I just write to try to communicate, and read to try to understand. I earn much of my living by writing but all this stuff baffles me (or bafflificates or bafflifies me)… Interesting though, in a navel-gazing kind of a way, I suppose.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Navel-gazing? Hardly. For analogy: I grew up beside a wood on the shores of a lake, so I was a nature-lover from childhood. But studying biology, far from interfering with that, enhanced my wonder at (and interest in) the natural world. It’s the same with language: a little systematic attention goes a long way.

  9. John Cowan says:

    James Salant makes what I think is a good distinction between prescription and prescriptivism. When we prescribe, we say “This text needs to follow this standard”, and if we are editors, we make it do so. Prescriptivism is an ideology that says that if you don’t follow the prescription, whatever it is, you are not a morally worthy person. The former is harmless, if it’s not serving as a gatekeeper to keep people out. The latter is poison.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a useful way of looking at it, John. I would adjust it to say ‘a less morally worthy person’, even if some prescriptivists would identify with the more extreme and unforgiving form.

  10. Stuart Brown says:

    I’m entirely there: editor by trade, linguist by inclination and incomplete doctorate. But I agree they are not necessarily mutually incompatible. In particular, I work with translated and annotated texts, where I attempt to encourage “scholarly” language in the annotations, while allowing a much freer hand in the translation itself. This exemplifies that, even to the editor, there is no one standard form. There are innumerable registers, and the editor’s job (as far as I am concerned) is to ensure that the appropriate register is selected for the content, and that it is then consistently applied. In one text I worked on, a Flann O’Brienesque novel, a previous copy-editor had flagged many words in the translation as “not real words,” without realizing that the whole point of the original Arabic was its glorious and silly neologising.
    I disagree, though, with another commenter’s claim that—even in the most formal of contexts—an editor should be behind the times in language use. The readership are not (except in the possible case of the Daily Telegraph), and the job of the editor is to make the text as pellucid (thanks, Robert Jay) as possible for that readership. As such, I don’t even have a problem with editors as trailblazers, attempting to strip language of some of its fossils: I’ve argued here that, even in scholarly texts, the use of many Latin expressions is simply obscurantist and should be done away with (I have varying success in persuading my authors of this, it’s true).

    • Stan Carey says:

      The multiplicity of standard Englishes is a fact that often eludes sticklers, even those who allow that the US ‘favors’ certain spellings. Each local standard dialect may be subdivided (loosely, variously) into different registers, in any one of which a given usage may be standard but inappropriate. Your translations of academic notations exemplify this. It’s a thicket of complexity and nuance, not a uniform monolith of Platonic Forms of invariable and universal correctness. (You know all this, of course; I’m just hear-hearing your comment in my own way.)
      Much as I enjoyed (again) your rant about Latinisms, I admit to shamelessly using a few of the less obscure ones now and then, such as cf. and even q.v. If there were English equivalents in common or even semi-common use I would consider switching the default, but the translations (‘compare’; ‘which see’) have no familiar abbreviated forms in English that I’m aware of. (Granted, compare is short and plain enough, but cf. is shorter and not, I think, off-puttingly obscurantist.)

      • Stuart Brown says:

        I tolerate “cf.” in footnotes minimally, for concision of space. In endnotes I try my hardest to encourage authors to use “compare,” but I have to accept that the style guide for my project (CMS) allows for “cf.” so I can’t actually strike it out. The great offenders, in my book, are supra and infra which cannot even claim to brevity. But “cf.” does rankle with me too. As I say in that (apparently previously-linked to) rant: if the expansion of an abbreviation in the abbreviations list then itself requires a gloss, there seems to be something falling short here in terms of clarity.
        Of course, all of this means that I should oppose “i.e.” and “e.g.” And, actually, I do try to get “that is” in place of “i.e.” (especially where a note starts with it; “I.e.” is just horrible) and “for instance” in place of “e.g.”, but again where concision really is a requirement I tolerate them.

      • Stan Carey says:

        As a general rule, in formal and semi-formal texts I restrict e.g. and i.e. to lowercase and parenthetical use. But I don’t oppose them just because they’re Latin. Some people might mix them up, and many might be unaware of what they stand for, but their brevity is convenient and their use at all levels of English is well established.

  11. astraya says:

    Yesterday in his blog, John McIntyre reviewed Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language by Rosemarie Ostler. He summarises her (and history): ‘A writer offers advice about language, his followers and schoolteachers convert the advice into dogma, and the public plumps for easy-to-follow rules, however bogus, over nuances and judgments.’

    For many people, including busy editors, nuances and judgements are not the first priority.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m looking forward to Ostler’s book. That sequence of events is how we ended up with some of our best-known grammatical and stylistic superstitions.
      Nuances and judgements must sometimes be sidelined, but the trouble is when this gets calcified into holy writ. A vicious circle can arise whereby style guides proscribe a usage because they think it’s substandard, editors remove it because it’s proscribed in the style guide, dictionaries flag it as informal or disputed because it’s excluded from edited writing, and the pointless cycle renews itself.

      • astraya says:

        I followed a link to your Macmillan post ‘Grammar at cross-purposes, and noticed that you talk about ‘natural diversity and nuances’, which is very close to John’s ‘nuance and flexibility’.

  12. Michael Vnuk says:

    A good post and with worthwhile comments too.

    I’m also an editor and I agree with the need to edit for different registers and styles.

    The ‘pace and pressures of modern publishing’ you mention in a comment are, as I’m sure you’ll agree, responsible for more than just typos. I’ve edited a number of documents where there was no time to do proper structural editing; a quick copyedit was all that could be done in the time left and some structural flaws just had to stay.

    I’m more inclined to correct other people, usually family members, but I also expect them to point out my errors too.

    Is there a way of simplifying the reporting of Twitter exchanges? Simply embedding them looks cumbersome to me, but perhaps I’m not used to reading them.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, very much so. The article I mentioned (with ‘half a dozen basic errors’) included some factual howlers as well as just typographical ones. In my editing and proofreading work I’ve experienced similar scenarios to the one you describe, where deadlines are looming and the writer – whether aware or not of the text’s structural shortcomings – wants to at least have it presented well.

      How tweets appear on this blog depends on the device and browser used. It may look like this or like this, for example. The former, which I see on Firefox on my desktop, is plain and minimalist. The latter, which I see on Chrome and is similar to how it appears on my phone, is heavily redundant, since each tweet that’s a reply includes the tweet being replied to. It’s cumbersome, as you say. I could use screengrab images, but that’s finicky in other ways and I would still want to link to the original tweets. So I just embed the tweet URLs and trust WordPress to present them legibly.

  13. […] use prescriptivist this way without qualifying it, since its scope is too broad – as an editor I wear a prescriptive hat. […]

  14. John Cowan says:

    (This seems like the best post for this question.)

    Somewhere I picked up the understanding that you are a bi-dialectal copy editor: that you can edit to AmE as well as to BrE and related varieties. I always thought this was awesome, since I (and His Hatness and other copy editors I know) depend fundamentally on intuition to spot errors, though correcting them sometimes involves research. I could readily translate BrE to AmE, but the other way around would be far too subtle for me, as would editing badly written BrE. I could just do it maybe with spelling checker, grammar book, etc., but I’m sure I’d miss a thousand errors, as well as wasting time over things that aren’t errors at all.

    But looking at your professional blog, I see no testimonials from Americans. Am I just wrong about what you can do? And if I’m right, how the devil do you do it? And what about non-native speakers who need their texts to be idiomatic and transparent AmE? That would be even harder, I think, than correcting native AmE, where most of the AmE flavor would already be present.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I can and do edit AmE text, but the vast majority of my editing and proofreading work is in BrE or Irish English, hence the predominance of UK and Irish testimonials on my website. I don’t think I’ve asked any Americans for one, now that you mention it. When I edit in AmE, the text is generally already in AmE, so it’s not a matter of converting the dialect, more of ensuring that the style is consistent. If a client is a non-native-English speaker who wants their text in AmE, I pay special attention to spelling and idiom in this regard. And if a text requires greater familiarity with the nuances of AmE than I feel I can offer, I say so.

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