Okay, this is my paper for my editing class that was super therapeutic to write. And my group members who edited it really enjoyed reading it. It's a four page paper so if you're not up to reading something that long, that's totally okay, but I wanted to share it. I think I'll feel so relieved when my teacher reads it. :) Haha. Anyway, happy reading to you.
I walked to class, unsure of what the new semester would bring. I sat down, a seat or two away from any other student, just as social norms dictate. Class began. I had no idea that the adventure I was embarking on would change my life, that I would depart from my conservative linguistic perspective and embrace a liberal stance.
It all began in that class, ELang 223, Introduction to English Language. From day one, I knew I had found something I would love. How could I not? Who knew that the silly little thoughts and concepts I had considered as a child were actually studied by scholars? Who knew there was another dimension to English besides literature and the grammar concepts I had so diligently enforced in high school?
My friends knew too well that I was poised and ready to pounce like a tiger to point out their slightest errors in spelling and grammar. How many times had I corrected their e-mails and speech? Weird, not wierd. Definitely, not definately. Here are the pictures of Jeff and me, not Jeff and I. Yes, I had done my part to educate my poor friends.
And it didn’t stop there. My teacher mistakenly wrote grammer instead of grammar—what was the world coming to? The local newspaper never knew how I ridiculed it for its daily errors. (Really? Shouldn’t you check to see which team won the game?) The poor souls who dared misspell a word on the chalkboard at church could only pray I forgave them without comment. To some, I was a savior; to others, a nazi. Some offered apologies in advance, some asked for my help, some tried to make as many mistakes as possible just to bother me. I was known as the Grammar Queen, Grammar Gestapo, and Grammarian. A friend gave me a book that reminded him of me, entitled Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English. My reputation as a stickler for accuracy in English usage spread. My teachers recognized my ability to catch usage errors. When students were required to have a peer edit their papers, my teachers recommended me. It seemed I was destined to become an editor. My only concern was the frustration I would surely feel with the world’s increasing stupidity.
But then I enrolled in ELang 223. I soon learned two new words that became very important to my life: prescriptivism and descriptivism. What was a prescriptivist? One who prescribes? I had only heard prescribe used in the context of medicine—what was this new meaning? One who orders or dictates, one who enforces the rules. This described my life exactly. I had been a language doctor going around handing out grammatical prescriptions to everyone—I now had the proper terminology to describe my life philosophy.
Then what was this mysterious descriptivism? What was a descriptivist, and more importantly, why would you want to be one? I had never before considered describing what was happening in language. I just wanted to fix it. As I learned about phonetics, morphology, and semantics, a whole new world was opened to me. I learned about the processes that language undergoes to arrive at new uses. I started noticing them in everyday use. I got so excited about my new knowledge that I shared it with whoever would listen.
I taught my roommate who always said sherbert instead of sherbet that she was only participating in the phenomenon of segment addition. I explained to my friends who consistently used Jeff and I when Jeff and me was actually correct that they were only victims of hypercorrection. Suddenly it was far more important and interesting to note unusual usages and to determine what was happening than it was to correct them. I carried a notebook everywhere and wrote down what I heard. I was becoming a descriptivist.
Serving a mission in Louisiana solidified this change. There were so many different things happening in the language. I wrote them down, thrilled to hear such unique expressions. After a while, they even started slipping into my own language. I asked, what time it is? and metathesized ask to aks. These utterances startled me. They worried me slightly, but mostly, I was delighted.
I came home from my mission and readjusted to the more conservative language. I decided to try my hand at editing again. I enrolled in ELang 350, Basic Editing Skills. The semester started out well. I was delighted by Brother Gardner’s humor. His comments of “We are the saviors, really, of the world,” “Please don’t tell people I called the Chicago Manual of Style scripture. I mark it, I cross-reference it, but I know it’s not scripture,” and “Ten points for Gryffindor!” excited me. On the first day, he brought up the big debate of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. I thought I could balance the two, having spent considerable time on both ends of the spectrum. The first weeks of the semester went by uneventfully. I did my readings and assignments faithfully, enjoying the opportunity to review the rules of punctuation.
It didn’t take long before the descriptivist within me started whining, however. Why does that issue matter? Nobody does that in the real world. I found myself in inner turmoil. Did I really want to be an editor? Did I want to correct and improve written language every day? Did I want to adhere to usage rules? Or would I rather study what was happening in spoken English?
I considered the pros and cons of each path. I studied my class texts in the process. Amy Einsohn described copyediting as being like “an English exam that never ends: At every moment, your knowledge of spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, syntax, and diction is being tested.” That didn’t sound very pleasant, even with her reassurance that “you’re not expected to be perfect” (4). I appreciated the maxim of the editors of Chicago, “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity” (xiii). It comforted me that even the editors of a major style guide recognize the need for balance. But could I continue this balancing act?
The words of Alan Williams continually echoed in my mind: “Indeed, the day that an editor picks up a manuscript without some sense of anticipation is probably the last day he or she should be at work” (4). I realized that I don’t feel that anticipation. Editing is just not my passion. I don’t look forward to editing. I do it because I can—I have the ability. But I don’t truly enjoy it.
I am grateful I have had the opportunity to learn how to edit. It allows me to improve my own writing and to help friends and family with theirs. I know from first-hand experience how much work editors do, and I have a greater appreciation for them. I know I couldn’t pursue a career as an editor, so I have a great respect for those who do.
It is hard to believe that just four or five years ago I was firmly entrenched in prescriptivism. I have undergone a great change and now see language in an entirely different way. I no longer think of language usage as right or wrong, but simply as the way it is. This change has surprised some of my friends. One of them recently corrected something I wrote that could be considered ungrammatical. I knew I could defend what I had written, but instead I just smiled. Things have certainly changed. The inner Grammar Queen has forfeited her throne to the Descriptivist.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate
Communications. 2nd ed. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2006. Print.
Harper, Russell David. “Preface.” The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 2010. xi–xiii. Print.
Williams, Alan D. "What Is an Editor?" Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know
About What Editors Do. Ed. Gerald Gross. New York: Grove Press, 1993. 3–9Print.