Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Evolution of the edit: The trials and tribulations of a proofreader

My thoughts on the evolution of English use in terms of proofreading and editing problems!

The Evolution of the Edit
I started out proofreading at university as part of the tutoring I offered international
students. Back then it was all fairly simple. I would say phrases like: 'We don't

really use that', or 'Don't forget the S'. As my students got better and better I noticed

they grasped more about English grammar rules than I ever did whilst I was at school.

Years later I stumbled across an essay by Johanna Stirling detailing the need to teach

'used' rather than 'book' English. It argued that English language usage was never

truly wrong because any nonsensical phrases or modern slang were in use and
therefore correct. This did not sit well with me at the time: would I have to
start teaching terms like 'innit' and 'fairly unique'?

However, as I started moving from teaching to editing I noticed that nobody really
knew how commas worked, what a split infinitive was, or how to not dangle a participle.
I studied official grammar rules carefully and found quite a few surprises! I hadn't realised
quite a lot of the truths about grammar.

 I then studied creative and academic writing a little more carefully; even some of the most talented writers I knew didn't really get how to 'write' if I judged their work by the standards of the grammar and expression
rule book. I then started to look at businesses, websites and shops, and I found the same
thing. The rules were clearly defined. For example everywhere seemed fairly well versed
in possessive apostrophes and capitalisation, but had no idea about semi-colons and colons.
Like the teaching of English as a foreign language, grammar and spelling are evolving and
a lot of the rules no longer apply in every day usage. Does this not mean the rule book is
erring on the side of inaccuracy?

I cannot remember the last time I heard someone use the word 'die' to mean one 'dice'.
They just don't use it! Surely this should mean that 'a die' is no longer a valid expression?
The same is the case for semi-colons and colons: if not many people use these correctly
or understand them completely, does their usage not become the fashion in which
they are popularly used rather than what the rule book says? 

In the past I have had writers approach me, asking why I have added or taken away a
grammar mark or spelt something differently or changed a tense, because, to them, even
upon careful study, what I had done was incorrect. However, it was technically accurate. The
problem with that is it isn't how proofreading and editing work any more. What is technically
accurate to me is not always accurate to the reader of a text, and if it is not, they
usually notice it and presume it hasn't been written properly!

The unfortunate truth is that a lot of proofreading and editing is guesswork. It might be
educated guesswork, but that is still what it is. A good editor or proofreader will take into
account your audience and what kind of rules they will be expecting and want to see in
your writing. The only thing they can do is arm themselves with knowledge of the perfect
technique, the modern concept of the perfect technique, the fashion and sometimes canon
for the type of writing they are looking at, and choose which rules would best fit
the project. Sometimes it is even a combination of different rule choices.

It is a difficult task, but hopefully as our language evolves and our notions of grammar,
spelling and expression do also, the rule books will start to reflect the true nature of
practical writing instead of traditional theory.

**During the writing of this article, I sat opposite a fellow proofreader and we argued
over every iota of the text, which brought it home to us that there is no consistency in
current proofreading practice. I am amazed this article managed to get proofed and online!

Original article can be found here:

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