The language wars are alive and strong, and Steven Pinker is in the middle of them this week. Pinker, a psychologist and cognitive scientist, wrote The Language Instinct, about the acquisition of language, 20 years ago. Now, he offers advice on what to do with language once you’ve acquired it in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.
Headline writers love to pile up nouns to get as much information as possible into limited space. But many words in English are the same whether nouns, verbs or adjectives, often leading to ambiguous results.
That’s where the copyeditor comes in—when there is a copyeditor handy to come in.
By education and career choice, I am a moderate prescriptivist (with descriptivist sympathies).* In my personal communication, I carefully “couldn’t care less” and I enjoy the game of keeping fewer and less in distinct count and non-count realms. In my professional life, I edit or query any nonstandard usage. It’s part of what my clients pay me to do. So I was surprised to realize that I had, for the first time, used literally to describe something that wasn’t literal -- and that I was okay with it.
Every profession has its hazards, some more serious than others. Professional drivers know that if they drive too long, they risk falling asleep at the wheel and causing an accident.
Last week, a few examples of the hazards of being a professional copyeditor were on display. I don’t mean there were copyeditors charged with vandalizing public signs. Instead, there were cases of editors missing the forest for the trees and of editors judging harshly without thinking or researching.