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

Monkeying about with other people's prose

The Baltimore Sun

A reader, John Harrington, posed this question on Facebook:

“I wonder what John McIntyre would say is the difference between conforming a piece of writing to the norms of Standard English and peevevereinlichkeit?

“Arguably, any time someone ‘corrects’ a sentence, they are engaging in some form of classism.

“I had a feeling of uneasiness recently in correcting the college paper of a friend who comes from a radically different socioeconomic background from me. The English communicated his ideas unambiguously, but it was not Standard English. In butchering up his sentences and suturing them into my own creations, I made it all nice and removed him from his own writing.

“I don’t think it was really necessary, though he likely got a better grade than he would have otherwise.”

All editing is prescriptive. Bad editing, of the kind favored by the peeververein, mechanically applies a set of rules, many of them ill-advised. Good editing comes from a series of judgments.

I take it that Mr. Harrington’s concern is about preserving the authenticity of the writer’s voice, and respecting the writer’s intention and voice calls for one set of judgments, but others are also in play. (Yes, some of them are classist. We’ll get to that.)

Let me talk about my editing as a journalist for a major newspaper.

I am bound by a set of journalistic conventions. We do not convict a person of a crime before trial. We attribute sources. We quote selectively but accurately. We verify, to the best of our ability, the factual accuracy of statements. We represent the views of the respective parties in a controversy. We watch out for potential libel. And so on.

I am also bound by a set of conventions imposed by the publication. However much my colleagues and I find swearing essential for the production of a newspaper, for example, we only rarely put the bad words in print.

I am responsible for making the copy conform to the grammar, usage, and conventions of standard English, because that dialect makes what we publish accessible to the widest possible audience.

And—the classist bit—because journalists are in the main middle-class college graduates, we write from a middle-class perspective while attempting, with varying success, to remain conscious during editing of our class biases.

When I look at a text, I have to gauge what is appropriate for the writer’s intention, what is appropriate for the subject and occasion, what is appropriate for the standards of the publication, and what is appropriate for the reader. If I were editing for an academic publication and audience, the dialect would be standard English but a different register from the one in the newspaper. If I were editing fiction, the dialect might well be other than standard English, with a variety of registers to respect. My job is to judge what is appropriate and what works.

Good editors know they are fallible, know how easily the making of judgments can go awry. The most I can say for myself is that, despite my lapses, miscalculations, and oversights, the papers published on my watch have been—on the whole—cleaner and clearer than they would have been without me.

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