Breaking the rules

As editors, we’re trained in the venerable Rules of English Grammar. We know where to place prepositions, how to use the semicolon and why it matters whether you use ‘that’ or ‘which’. But how many of these rules are real? And why do we break so many of them?

When I started working as a copyeditor, lo these many years ago, I spent months being trained in how to edit properly. My basic knowledge was OK, of course, or I’d not have been hired, but there are all those little rules of editing to become aware of. And, most particularly, there’s the need to learn how to remove wrong grammar and ambiguity from a text.

So, for the first few years of my time as an editor, I was the policeman – detecting and eliminating crimes against grammar. Like all editors, I became adept at spotting not just errors but those many occasions when the author hadn’t been clear, and correcting the writing so that it was clear.

 Prescriptive or descriptive?

The problem with this approach only became evident to me after many years. And I can sum it up in one question:

if a certain construction is ambiguous and must be reworded, how is it that we editors always know how to reword it?

If there was genuine ambiguity then we would need to ask the author the correct meaning, and yet somehow we put ourselves in the position of knowing exactly what the author meant and yet feeling that we need to rephrase because it’s ‘ambiguous’.

Also, I learned about two contrasting approaches to the study of the English language. The prescriptivists lay out the law, and declare one usage to be Bad and another Good. The descriptivists observe usage and declare all usages to be Used – without, by and large, passing judgement.

The truth, I suspect, lies between these two poles – some usages genuinely are Bad (as in, unclear, confusing or overly complex) whereas many others are simply inelegant or not what we’re used to.

 To be or not to be?

One of the clearest examples is the split infinitive. We’re all taught to never split an infinitive (see what I did there?) but why not? This ‘error’ was discovered by scholars in the 19th century and declared to be Bad English. The reason, though, is strange.

These scholars were embarked on a quest to analyse and improve English by appeal to what they regarded as the ideal language – Latin. Unfortunately, the grammars of English and Latin are very different. And, in Latin, it is simply not possible to split an infinitive, because the infinitive is a single word. In English, though, it’s two words. So the grammarians declared that English should behave like Latin and thus the infinitive should not be split.

The problem for the prescriptivist is that the infinitive has been split throughout the history of English, and by the great writers. Shakespeare did it. Chaucer did it. So, if they can do it, why can’t we? (Those interesting in this topic could do worse than read Language Log articles like this one.)

Real-world English

If split infinitives (and many other rules, like not placing prepositions at the end of sentences) are ‘fake’ rules that don’t really makes sense, why do we editors still follow them? The answer, I fear, is that we’re afraid of the amateurs and the scholars. For if we allow a split infinitive to be published, it will be reported as an error by some readers. There will be complaints that we haven’t done our jobs ‘properly’.

So we continue enforcing bad rules and propagating the sense that they’re right, because we’re afraid of being criticised for doing our job poorly.

Going to the source

As more years passed for me as an editor, then, I found myself being more accepting in what I considered ‘correct’ English – but still making lots of corrections to bring texts into line with The Rules.

For all I know, this feeling isn’t very common (although I’ve spoken to other editors who feel similarly). But, even so, it’s sometimes worth checking the basics.

Over the next few months on this blog (alongside other articles as normal), I’m going to start doing a re-read of Judith Butcher’s classic work Copy-editing. I first read it back at the start of my career, as I was training, and then – like a lot of references – it became just another spine on the shelf that I referred to occasionally.

I invite you to re-read (or read!) this classic along with me and share our comments, because it’s been many years since it was last revised and the profession has moved on. The book is pretty expensive new but can be picked up cheap second-hand, and I’m guessing that many of you have access to a copy anyway.

I’ll be posting my thoughts on the first couple of chapters next week, so pop back and let’s explore together.

Posted on 21 Jul 2014
Written by John Pettigrew

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has 20 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.