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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

You want to be an editor, you can't be a mere rule-follower

The Baltimore Sun

Someone posted this comment on my video dismissing the split-infinitive superstition: “Kids: listen to this guy, and you will not pass the grammar part of any decent entry level college exam.”

As we approach the end of the year, I see that some of the people who read my blog or view my videos are not clear on the concept. Let me explain once more.

I teach editing, not robotic rule-following. My students have to learn to distinguish actual rules of grammar and usage, conventions, superstitions and shibboleths, and the arbitrary choices of various style guides. They need to distinguish among the various registers of English and determine what is appropriate for the writer, the subject, the occasion, and the publication. They need to learn how to make judgments, and informed judgments are not made by rote.

Many of my students have been ill-served by their education. Some have been taught writing as self-expression and are largely innocent of formal grammar and usage. Some have been through the five-paragraph-essay mill. Some have been taught the zombie rules and have to be disabused. (Great Fowler’s ghost! one commenter on my blog appears to impose the default masculine on his unfortunate charges.) So the first three weeks of my editing class are a desperate effort to accomplish some basic learning and unlearning before we can get to actual editing.

I am an editor myself, and I do actual editing every week. Actual editing aims at accuracy, clarity, and precision. Achieving clarity means balancing what the writer is attempting to say against what the reader is most likely to understand. Precision contributes to clarity in the selection of words and idioms in the language as it exists and is used and is understood. False precision, the imposition of superstitions and shibboleths in the writing, wastes time and distracts from the achievement of genuine clarity.

Some editors, particularly in specialty or technical publications, are subject to strict adherence to style guides. And many editors are subject to the ukases of tinpot authorities who conflate their idiosyncratic preferences with purity of the language. (I’ve been there, often.) All of us who edit have to accomplish as much as we can, given the materials we have, the tools with which we work on them, and the time allotted.

Back at the desk tomorrow to round out the end of this year and prepare for the next. Back in the classroom in three weeks. Much to be done. Much to be learned. Much to be unlearned.

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