Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

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Grammar rules are meant to be broken

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 9, 2008

For my first post, I want to explain what “the twist” in my blog title refers to. I’m a copy editor who likes breaking rules. Copy editing is often viewed as this job where editors impose rigid grammar laws and get all hung up over dangling modifiers. Some copy editors may fit that bill, but I, however, do not enjoy following rigid, outdated rules.

I am of the belief that prescriptive grammar (that is, the grammar you learned in school) should not be imposed on writers or readers. The way we write should reflect the way people actually speak.

If you’re familiar with linguistics, this is called a descriptive grammar approach. Descriptive grammarians acknowledge that change in a language is inevitable and no one form of a language is considered superior.

How is this useful in copy editing? A lot of times I see editors become frustrated with rules, not because they don’t understand them, but because they just sound … funny. Trying to decide whether to use “whomever” or “whoever” will not make an article better. It will just distract you from editing for clarity and conciseness.

Bruce Byfield summed it up perfectly:

“By abandoning prescriptive grammar, writers shift the responsibility for their work to themselves. In practice, this shift means making choices that are not right or wrong in the abstract, but, rather, useful in a particular context or purpose.”

Copy editors should take a similar approach when editing someone else’s work. We must really think about the words we use and the grammar we impose. When I’m editing, I ask myself, 1. Is this the clearest and most concise way that this could be written? and 2. Does this reflect the way people actually speak?

So worry less about changing “who” to “whom” and more about the story’s ability to answer those other, more important W’s. If we can think of grammar rules as guidelines and put some real thought into what the writer is trying to say, we can make decisions that better serve both the writer and reader.  Plus, the articles we edit won’t sound so damn stuffy anymore.


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