A prescriptivist, but not the kind you're thinking about

A small Episcopal church I once attended discovered that its Stations of the Cross were beautiful, delicate Italian porcelain. A previous rector had covered the porcelain with gray paint, the better to make it resemble stone. "He had a lot of taste—all of it bad," one parishioner recalled.

That rector shows an affinity with the kind of copy editor one occasionally hears mentioned in horrified tones, the kind of copy editor who dogmatically applies the stylebook to all situations and will not let go of decades of accumulated editing shibboleths.


That copy editor in turn shows an affinity with the kind of prescriptivist who would be a caricature if there were not so many actual specimens trumpeting some oversimplification of grammar and usage picked up in adolescence while disparaging anyone who disagrees as illiterate.

This is not the crowd I prefer to travel with.

I am a prescriptivist. All editors are prescriptivists; you put your text in our hands and we will prescribe. But the kind of prescribing I practice has more to do with rhetoric than with brute application of a set of rules.

A text has a subject, written in the voice of the writer, for an occasion, a publication, and an audience. My job as an editor is to assist the writer in accomplishing their purpose by adjusting the language appropriately for the subject, the occasion, the publication, and the reader, keeping all those interests in balance.

This will involve attending to levels of register within the conventions of standard English, and also deciding when to violate those conventions. There will be times when it will make sense to include the demotic, because slang and nonstandard dialects can offer a level of nuance and precision of meaning not otherwise available.

What I am talking about is editing as the making of a series of judgments. The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook can furnish you with useful information and guidelines, but they cannot make judgments for you.

These judgments are inherently subjective—no two editors will make quite the same set of choices—which makes it important for the editor and the writer to have a sympathetic understanding. The editor needs to be able to hear the writer's music (even if it is played on a kazoo). If you are listening for bebop and the writer is singing hip hop, things are not likely to end well.

Usually, when I point out that grammar and usage are more intricate and flexible than people have been taught, or that all the Englishes have a place at the table, I get responses along the lines of "There are no rules." But in practice I bring to editing the principle that Flannery O'Connor brought to writing fiction: "You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much."