A while ago, I asked people what they’d like to see me writing about. One that came up there, and has come up since, and before, and whenever I mention I’m a proofreader/copyeditor, is … “why bother?” Why can’t people just express themselves however they want, with whatever spelling, grammar and punctuation they fancy?
I have to state my own view here; that’s all I can do. And furnish some examples, many drawn from a discussion I had with peers in the copyediting business, on a forum to which I belong. I fall in between the prescriptive and descriptive camps when it comes to spellings, grammar, etc. and their (inevitable) changes. I glory in new words and word-formations (I’ve been slightly obsessed with the -gate suffix for more years than I care to recall) and I find it fascinating to see how language changes with time. I don’t think it should be fixed, nailed down and not allowed to change. But I still care deeply about clarity and precision of expression. And, in my opinion, if you don’t know the rules and how to apply them, if you don’t *care* about the rules and how to apply them, then the clarity of what you’re expressing can easily be lost, and your meaning may not come across as you intend it to.
Please note, I am not criticising those who don’t know the rules, or have difficulty applying them. How could I, when my own clients include people whose English is not their first (or second, or third) language, dyslexic people, people who’ve not been taught at school or college how the rules work. I like a laugh at a dodgy shop sign as much as the next person, but I wouldn’t point out those things publicly in this blog, or ever want to make people feel I’m mocking them. But if you are not sure what to put or how to write it, there are reference materials all over the place, and people like me and my colleagues, who can help out.
So, some examples (thanks again to the Copyediting-List folks for providing some of them)
— A purple people-eater is purple and eats people, but a purple-people eater eats only the purple ones.
— Here’s a fascinating link showing the importance of word order:
— Here’s an example of how important language is in the legal field. And it’s not just in the legal field – while many students are not marked down for grammar and punctuation these days, a friend who lectures in speech and language therapy does, as a mistake in someone’s notes can cause many problems down the line.
— On a similar note, haven’t we all got colleagues or other people we communicate with who may not have great written language skills? Doesn’t it devalue their opinions a little in your mind, when everyone’s laughing at the latest email or sign?
— This is a long one, but it shows the importance of punctuation!
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
— Capitalisation matters too, in this great example from Andy Mabbett:
One area of capitalisation that divides even experts in the field is around species names. There are many types of black-headed gulls, and lots of little gulls, but only one species called Black-headed Gull (and it has a brown head!) and one species of Little Gull. Consider:
“Is that black-headed gull a black-headed gull?”
“No, that’s a little gull. The little gull on the railing is a black-headed gull.”
“Is that black-headed gull a Black-headed Gull?”
“No, that’s a Little Gull. The little gull on the railing is a Black-headed Gull.”
— A classic: Let’s eat Grandma!/Let’s eat, grandma!
— Lynne Truss did well out of this one: Eats, shoots, and leaves/Eats shoots and leaves.
— This one comes in various forms and with various names… I would like to thank my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.
Publishers and other purveyors of words have style guides, academic departments ask their students to reference books read in a certain way, and proofreaders and copyeditors (and copy writers) use reference materials such as the ones I’ve discussed before, to make sure that what they produce is clear and consistent. We do this, I think, on behalf of the reader, so they’re not distracted by mistakes, howlers and inconsistencies. My aim in my work is to help the writer express themselves clearly and accurately, so their readers can read their texts simply and easily, using their brainpower and concentration to absorb the concepts of the text at hand, or just enjoy a work of fiction without having to puzzle over the word the author meant to use.
So – why bother? Do you think I should? Do you think we should? And have I answered the question?