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The editor's quandary

Yesterday's post, "Words that slip their leashes," the second this week to deal with the objection to crescendo in the loose sense of "reach the highest pitch or intensity," closed with "You understand what it means, don't you?" Harris Ruben was quick to respond on Facebook: "This is the justification commonly put forth by those who can neither spell nor punctuate. And you know what I mean."

I want to deal first with Mr. Ruben's comment, then with a realistic approach to usage, and finally with the editor's quandary. Are you sitting comfortably?

"Those who can neither spell nor punctuate" suggests the specter that the peeververein always summons up. The barbarians are within the walls, and lexicographers and linguists have succumbed to a trahison des clercs. English has been overtaken by entropy. God is dead and all is permitted. The Rabelaisian fay ce que vouldra* governs us all. The center cannot hold.**

Here's the thing. You go to battle with the language you have, not the language you wish you had. If you are writing or editing for publication, you have to pay attention to the language as it exists if you are to make sound judgments. Linguists and lexicographers are your allies; the former can identify bogus rules on which you would otherwise waste your time to little purpose, and the latter can show you what people mean when they write or speak. If you want to be understood, you have to use the language as your readers understand it.

To the peeververein, sneering at the less precise bolsters their sense of themselves as an elite, and you might as well join them if snobbery is your main purpose. Otherwise, you might keep well in mind that "those who can neither spell nor punctuate" includes most people, including a great many writers.

Language is messy, and there is no central authority to regulate English. Linguists and lexicographers describe what they find but do not instruct you what you ought to do. There are manuals of usage, but the authorities do not agree. You have resources, but what you are left with is your own capacity for making reliable judgments. And there is the editor's quandary.

Some editors, particularly copy editors, take the easy way out. There are The Rules, they can be found in the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, the New York Times stylebook, the APA stylebook, or whatever, and all that is necessary is to follow The Rules and slap a coat of battleship gray over every text. And even if the editors may know better, they often work for some martinet who is a Believer in The Rules.

I repeat my mantra: audience, subject, occasion, publication. To make sensible judgments, you must always have a sense of what the reader's capacities and expectations may be, and whether the language you use is appropriate for the subject, the occasion, and the publication. You know this. A while back, b, The Sun's publication for a younger audience, printed douchebag in a headline, but you wouldn't see the word anywhere in The Sun itself, no matter how many douchebags we write about.

So, you are editing a text in which the writers uses reached a crescendo. You recognize it as an iffy construction. Your first judgment must be to determine whether it will be clear in context to the reader. Accuracy and clarity matter more than anything else. If the reader misunderstands or is baffled, you risk losing that reader's attention altogether.

Once you have determined that reached a crescendo in context means "reached the highest pitch or intensity" and that, like it or not, the reader is apt to understand exactly what is meant, you have to make a second judgment: Should it be changed?

Judgments like that are matters of taste and individual preference. You are standing on ground where there are no rules. And while you always consult your own tastes and your own sense of the language, making changes simply because you used to play baritone horn in the band and you think crescendo should retain its technical and musical sense,*** your individual preference is not the be-all and end-all. You have to balance your preferences against the authorities and the entire corpus of writing with which you are acquainted. Otherwise, you're just riding your own hobbyhorse.

Mind you, you don't have all day. I make dozens, scores of changes in text every hour of my work day, hundreds by the hour when the benison of bourbon beckons. Some are automatic, reflexive: spelling and typos, capitalizations, punctuation, the other little stuff. On many points of usage, though, I have to think. There are edits I used to make that I no longer make, now that I am better informed and less rigid. Sometimes I've revised reached a crescendo; sometimes I've thought it best to let it through.

That's where it gets hairy, at the places where mechanical editing will not serve, the places at which you have to get yourself out of the editor's quandary by asking yourself questions. Am I well-informed on this point of usage? Am I merely substituting an idiosyncratic preference? Does this change make sense? Does changing this better serve the reader and the publication?

More often than not, you're on your own in this, so develop the resources that will nourish your judgment, and examine your practices.

 

*Do what you will.

**Pace, Mr. Ruben. I don't visualize you with empurpled wattles and spraying spittle. I'm just using your innocent comment to construct a straw man.

***That would be me.

 

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