Editors are not English referees, as much as we’d like to think so.

By Joshua Yearsley (@joshuayearsley)

Sometimes, we editors like to think ourselves the preservers of order, bastions against the raging hordes that misuse and even abuse language. While this viewpoint is ego-balm, it’s also wrong. Why? Because language is no inanimate thing: it grows and changes with use and time. English as we speak and write it today was never “created” by anyone. Instead, it is a mishmash of agreements, mutations, slip-ups, and proclamations both advised and ill-advised. Just look at this excerpt from 1745, in which Benjamin Franklin advises a young man to choose an older woman as a mistress over a younger one:

Because as they have more Knowledge of the World and their Minds are better stor’d with Observations, their Conversation is more improving and more lastingly agreable.

Just look at all those errors: “Agreeable” isn’t spelled like that! What’s with the apostrophe in “stored”? Why, for the love of the Constitution, are all the nouns capitalized? Simple: those were the conventions of the age. If good ol’ Ben is too old-school for you, here’s a more recent example of how language is changing right under our noses despite our fiercest protests. I present the case of the singular, gender-neutral they. You’ve probably seen (and certainly heard) this kind of construction recently: “Each patron is unique; you should respect their preferences.” The antecedent (patron) is singular, while the pronoun (they) referring to the patron is plural. Wrong! …Right? You can just hear your middle-school English teacher repeating the words “pronoun-antecedent agreement”, can’t you? Not everyone thinks it’s wrong in every case, though—including me. That’s a whole different discussion, though. Let’s focus on the idea that language is clay, not stone. Would you believe me if I said that using the singular they was common practice earlier in the history of the English language?

…language doesn’t really work as a top-down system, with authoritative sources dictating how speakers should use it. But social and political change often does have a major effect on at least formal writing and, more slowly, speech. For instance … the use of the generic “he” wasn’t an accident, but the result of an act by the British parliament that ordered that official documents be edited to use it. Prior to that, use of the singular “they” was common in formal writing.

Is your mind blown yet? While previous use isn’t evidence that the singular they is a best practice, it’s a fine example of how language evolves. Hell, even the characters we used to construct our language have changed over time, including the beloved monophthong æ.

Existential Angst of the Editor

By presenting ourselves as the Keepers of English, inc. Rules #1–783, we do ourselves a disservice. This attitude says to writers, “I know all the rules, and if your writing doesn’t follow them, you’ll get back an ocean of red ink.” How do you think this feels to the writer? If you answered scary, terrifying, embarrassing, or anything similar—you’re right. And all this does is prevent writers from getting the editing help that would make their art that much better. So then, if editors are not the umpires of language, what are we? The American Editor gives a fantastic answer:

A great editor is someone who ensures that a reader understands the editor’s author.

Note the lack of the following words: “rules”, “grammar”, “spelling”, and “syntax”. Everything in language we call a rule is really just a convention. And because everything is a convention, we must know when breaking the convention will make a sentence more readable or understandable. No style choice is explicitly right or wrong. We can create best practices, conventions, and agreements–but no rules.

Editors aren’t rulekeepers; we’re craftspeople. As a carpenter, it would be silly to say all boxes must be made from mahogany and stained with Tung oil. That’s what a writer goes through when they talk to editors who think they know it all. You can probably imagine the writer’s confusion when they meet another holier-than-thou word-wrangler who says that—no!—all boxes must be made from pine and stained with varnish! A good editor wants the writer’s story to be the best story it can be—and that means choices, uncertainty, experimentation, and iteration. Not much is sure in language, and we editors shouldn’t act otherwise. Throwing out the notion of rules doesn’t mean ushering in an age of chaos, though. With the reader’s comprehension as our guiding light, we still must preserve many conventions of English. For example, we’d be hard-pressed to argue that it’s generally acceptable in English to place adjectives after nouns:

The rose red swayed in the wind.

The red rose swayed in the wind.

Nonsense, right? What is a rose red? Somebody reading this without context would either be completely confused or think it a typo. Again, everything is a convention, but some conventions are far too accepted to break in standard writing. However, placing an adjective after a noun is perfectly acceptable in other languages such as French and Spanish. Similarly, hyphenating adjectival phrases is often done to avoid confusion on what’s modifying what.

His rose-red face swelled with anger.

His rose red face swelled with anger.

But in some cases, hyphenating an adjectival phrase will just make you look stodgy and stiff.

The hot-dog stand closed at 8 PM.

The hot dog stand closed at 8 PM.

While the hyphen in the first example (rose-red…) clarifies the sentence, the second example (hot-dog…) is another story: while it’s certainly useful for readers not fluent in English, many native English speakers would find the hyphen patronizing. (“Of course I know that it’s a stand that sells hot dogs, not dogs that are hot.”) Extending that thought, in a half-century if nobody has a clue what hot dogs are—well then hyphenating would always be helpful, wouldn’t it? Either way, we shouldn’t make a rule (i.e., an unbreakable convention) that says “always hyphenate adjectival phrases!” because it won’t always clarify writing. The same goes for just about every other convention in the book(s). It’s perfectly reasonable to balk at usage that confuses readers—for example, the current trend of using “literally” in place of “figuratively”, the two words meaning opposite things—but remember always that, as editors, we should always be thinking first about the readers, not the rules—whatever those are.

Flickr image by Jenny Kaczorowski, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0