Post by Ron Smith
When I started proofreading and copy-editing for a living in January 2011, I was searching for order in language. So, if Hart’s Rules said it should be done in a certain way, that’s what I conveyed to, and in my very early days, perhaps even imposed on, some of my customers.
Hart’s is undoubtedly a first-class guide, but it is not the God of language and, indeed, there is no body in overall control of language – a concept argued in a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘The Pedant’ (an episode in the Word of Mouth series).
Instead, general usage is what the language is.
Standards are slipping!
I used to be firmly in the camp of ‘Standards are slipping’ and, according to the above programme, I was in good company since Defoe and Swift, I learned, also held that view.
Much of my work is on documents produced by students, many of whom are postgraduates. I still have difficulty understanding how anyone can complete a university education and still not know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’ or ‘were’ and ‘where’, yet I come across this frequently.
So although the message from this programme is that standards of literacy have never been higher in this country, this is not a premise that I can wholeheartedly agree with. Having said that, my attitude towards, and treatment of, variations in language usage have altered over the years.
In the past, I would:
- always change ‘data is’ to ‘data are’
- insist on the presence of ‘on the one hand’ before allowing ‘on the other hand’
- make any leading capitalisation lower case if there was no grammatical justification for it
- insert ‘that’, as a subordinating conjunction, at every opportunity
- bar stranded prepositions (‘with’, near the end of the previous paragraph, is an example).
Regarding the above:
- It is perfectly acceptable to use ‘data is’, providing it is used consistently.
- ‘On the other hand’ can be used without preceding it with ‘on the one hand’.
- Leading capitalisation is a matter of style and, where necessary, I remark on it but do not change it.
- Providing sense is maintained without the word ‘that’, I accept its omission.
- There is no grammatical rule against the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence.
Before listening to this programme, I was not aware that many of the pedantic rules of language had resulted from people like Thomas Sheridan, in the 1780s, telling anyone who would listen that they were not talking elegantly or politely enough (loaded words in the 18th century). This was during the Industrial Revolution, when huge numbers of people were moving from the countryside into towns, trying to make sense and order out of the seismic changes in their lifestyle. Consequently, I can well understand how adopting such new rules was seen as part of people’s path to bettering themselves.
Language is constantly changing
Every year, the OED adds words to its dictionary and in 2014 alone that number passed 1000. Proofreaders and copy-editors are well aware that the language is constantly changing and seek to allow writers freedom of expression, while ensuring that the end product makes sense and is suited to its intended audience.
Sense, consistency and audience
Providing sense and consistency are maintained, and the writing suits the audience (another point made in the programme), I am now much more likely to accept variations in usage. Where any variation does not meet these three criteria, I will either correct any mistakes or make suitable suggestions on style, but now I will leave well alone, if at all possible.
How we can help
So all writers should rest assured that we proofreaders and copy-editors are not there to pounce gleefully on your possible stylistic infelicities but to make your document, on which you have probably spent considerable time and effort, fit to put before the specific audience you are aiming at.
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