A few days ago, I read Emmy Favilla and Megan Paolone’s article “33 Struggles Only Copy Editors Will Understand” on BuzzFeed (and loved it so much I retweeted it). After the chuckles subsided, however, I started thinking about how editors can either encourage people to more closely examine the use of language or forever turn people off from exploring the purpose and evolution of language. There are online lists, boards, and communities overflowing with arguments about the serial comma, whether to end a sentence with a preposition, and other rules and practices of grammar and usage that are interesting (to some), and even useful (to many more). But are these rules truly important?
Favilla and Paolone’s article took a humorous look at 33 gripes that resonate with any copy editor, and on a larger scale, any number of word nerds. While I’ll admit that the struggle is real for me in some areas (number 20, anyone?), there were several that left me thinking, “Yes, only a copy editor would ever care about that.” And why do we copy editors care? For many of us, our love of the English language and endless fascination with how language has changed over time have established a permanent hold on our hearts and minds. This passion for language is part of what we try to pass on to others through our work. But as with many other things in life, balance is key. For editors, that means balancing grammar and usage rules with preservation of the author’s voice and faithful delivery of the writer’s message to readers.
As an editor, I see my main purpose as helping people clarify and polish their words to present their messages as fully and as clearly as possible. In order to help writers achieve the greatest clarity in their writing, I often must explain the mechanics of grammar and general rules of usage. In other words, my job is to help writers use the proper language “tools” for the job. The language tools an author uses for an article on economic theory may not be the right tools for a science fiction manuscript. For example, while there may be consistent approaches in some areas such as use of adverbial phrases, there may be a difference in the use of the word “efficient.” For any piece of writing, the way language is used should be with the intention of guaranteeing that the writer’s message is clearly received by the reader.
Yes, I’ll still have a degree of angst when character limitations require that I break a grammar rule for the sake of a tweet. I’ll still raise an eyebrow over words like “irregardless” that will never, EVER enter the pearly gates of my personal dictionary. But in the end, I’ll always celebrate the nuances and changes in language and help others do so as well.