Rules and linguistic patriotism
Editors might start out feeling confident that the placement of apostrophes and hyphens is an exact science or that grammar is a matter of applying set rules but we soon learn to embrace ambiguity. The no tolerance delusion that there is a right and a wrong approach is replaced by the realisation that there is more than one way to slice almost any linguistic pie.
This makes editing much more varied and interesting than word controlling. Anyone who has spent time on editors’ listserves knows that the minute someone poses a curly question on grammar or syntax, shortly afterwards there are likely to be at least three minutely argued, plausible rationales for entirely different opinions. If the debate continues, a veritable Karma Sutra of positions will follow, each backed by example, reference and sometimes passionate polemic.
Like a Californian redwood and Nora Ephron’s neck, our age is imprinted into our very substance. In language, it’s embedded in our idiolect, the personal language that defines who and what we are. The way we express ourselves is as individual as our DNA. We observe personal language rules, though each of us holds the line in different places. It might be the distinction between ‘compared with’ and ‘compared to’ for one person and the apostrophe in ‘ten years’
experience’ for another.
The power of linguistic patriotism is strong. Many older Australians would no sooner write ‘It was so fun’ or ‘She’s doing great’ than chop off their toes but these started out as no more than regional differences in informal language. Well educated, literate young Australians are more relaxed about North American English. Some celebrate ‘New Year’s’ and stroll down the ‘sidewalk’. Others have abandoned the noun ‘licence’. Australian websites and newspapers regularly feature US spelling of ‘skeptic’ and ‘center’. They’re in the minority for now but the infiltration may be unstoppable.
Globalisation is creating a language that incorporates North American, British, New Zealand, South
African, Jamaican, Singaporean, Indian and Australian English, among others, and it’s infused with second-language expressions of millions who use English for trade and technology. When one person’s egregious error is another’s acceptable expression, who should be the arbiter?
Who’s talking? Who’s listening?
For me, the question isn’t how would I express an idea but what’s the most effective way for this manuscript, this author, this audience.
Editors are at one remove from writer and reader. We’re mediators who put our feet into the shoes of readers and writers. We don’t squeeze them into the kitten heels or ugg boots we might prefer. Tragically, to keep our finger on the pulse of language change requires constant research. There’s no getting around it. We have to read, and read widely, dwelling in the finest fiction, poring over ground-breaking work on science and culture, and slumming it in the blogosphere. There, we encounter beauty, inconsistency, misspellings and clangers – the full catastrophe of language in the raw.
From promiscuous reading and the free-for-all of the internet, the editor emerges steeped in language variation. We engage with our manuscripts through clear and muddied prose, with one eye on who wrote it, another on who will read it, and our third quiet eye on the text itself.
I aim to edit for elegance of style, clarity and content. I look for expressions and ideas that are fresh and compelling. On a good day, I feel I’m doing it for posterity. The best moments are when I savour a passage that I reckon will outlive me. It’s a pretty good gig, working with words and observing their shifty little ways.
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