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An editor at the still point of a turning world

Each week The Old Editor will attempt to address your entreaties for information and advice on grammar and usage, writing, writer-editor etiquette, and related subjects.

The Old Editor does not address marital and relationship matters, dietary questions, or automobile mechanics.

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The question:

Responding to the "Fading crotchets" post, an editor at another site wondered how to gauge the "tipping point" in usages such as lie/lay, who/whom, hopefully, asking, "Should editors be the first or the last to embrace these changes?"

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The Old Editor answers: First, let it be said that The Old Editor continues to differentiate between who and whom, lie and lay, but that is because this blog is of interest only to a limited audience of well-educated, highly literate readers: fellow editors and teachers, linguists and lexicographers, and a few of the more promising undergraduates.

Let it also be said that as far as the Old Editor can discern, the lie/lay distinction is essentially gone in U.S. speech and slowly vanishing in writing. As for who/whom, The Old Editor got into a wrangle on a discussion site with people who apparently think that the pronoun following a verb or preposition must always be whom; and when it is demonstrated that the pronoun is the subject of a clause, the clause itself being the object of the verb or preposition, they cannot or will not see it. Fellow editors come asking, "Should this be who or whom?" The waters are muddy.

As to the question of being first or last, an editor should neither be an impulsive early adopter nor a fussy mossback. Much, of course, depends on publication and audience. A copy editor for Rolling Stone is not going to make the same choices that an editor for The New York Review of Books will make.

Let's take an example of a neologism. I'm seeing adult crop up as a verb on Facebook and Twitter, usually in a precious and self-deprecating sense that adulting in the sense of "shouldering adult responsibilities" is difficult. I'm not inclined to use it myself or wave it through for publication except in a direct quote. But I will consider a series of questions.

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How widespread is it? I see it on Facebook and Twittter. Is it cropping up in newspapers, magazines, websites? Have the lexicographers given it attention? Once Merriam-Webster's or the Oxford Dictionaries post an entry for it, you can be sure that it has achieved a certain density of citations. Will it be clear to my readers? Will they think it means "committing adultery"? Will I have to put it in some context that makes it clear? Does it leap out of the text and jar the reader? Do I prefer to wait and see whether it sticks or is just an evanescent vogue word?

A similar set of questions applies when a traditional rule or distinction comes under consideration.

What usages am I seeing in current edited prose: newspapers, magazines, websites, books? What do I see in the reliable authorities, such as the usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary, Butterfield's Fowler's, the websites of editors and linguists recommended at this blog? What does Bryan Garner say? Though his personal preferences leak through a little in Garner's Modern American Usage, he is scrupulous about corpus research. If his Language-Change Index identifies as usage as Stage 4, "Ubiquitous, but …" you can be sure that you have arrived at a tipping point, the stage at which only the most conservative readers are likely to object.

You must also ask yourself how much power to give the peeververein. You can expect ignorant and occasionally bellicose responses from the sort of people who imagine that split infinitives are bad English, that none can only be a singular pronoun, that prepositions must not fall at the end of sentences, &c., &c., &c. Would you modify a political or scientific text to accommodate uninformed opinion? Then why would you bow to ignorant views about grammar and usage?

As a previous post pointed out, we have no certainties in editing; we have only judgments. Informed judgments are better for us than reflexive ones. In language, an editor is at the still point of a turning world, always seeking a momentary stability, an equilibrium, a balance.

Got a question for The Old Editor? Write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com. Your name will not be used unless you specifically authorize it.

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