Protecting the tower or holding back the tide?
A copyeditor’s job is to apply rules and style to a manuscript, to correct what’s wrong and ensure that the writing is suitable for the writer’s, publisher’s, and reader’s needs.
Languages are living things, always changing while they’re being used. It may take centuries for a change to occur or just a few years.
How can a copyeditor make a decision about a usage that’s in flux? When do we hold the line, and when do we concede a change? Let’s take a look.
Climbing the language stairway
I picture the different registers of language as a stairway in a tall ivory tower. The lowest step is our most informal speech and writing, while the top is our most formal speech and writing, often inhabited by academics and heads of state.
Language changes often start on the bottom stair. A change that starts in casual speech makes its way into casual writing, such personal e-mails and text messages.
As more people become familiar with the new usage, it climbs the stairs. It’s used more frequently and in more formal situations. Language’s gatekeepers warn against it. But people become so accustomed to the new usage that they hardly notice it and start to use it even more.
Soon it appears on higher steps, places meant to speak to general audiences in a comfortable way, such as sales copy and trendy magazines. The gatekeepers keep railing but they aren’t heard over the buzz. The change makes its way up another step in the tower: business writing and websites, perhaps.
It keeps climbing until it gets to the top, to our most formal writing and speaking occasions: academic writing, formal speeches to dignitaries, and the like.
Not all changes make it to the top of the tower. Sometimes people lose interest in it and stop using it. Language users are a fickle bunch.
Occasionally the gatekeepers get their message heard and stop the change. Sometimes they slow the change down or keep it relegated to the lower steps. Most times, though, the hordes of speakers and writers push the change up to the top of the tower.
Copyeditors as gatekeepers
Copyeditors are a type of gatekeeper. We have specific duties:
- Know what usages the rest of the gatekeepers are railing against and how the masses are receiving their message.
- Know where a manuscript’s audience stands on that message.
- Advise use or deletion accordingly.
I’ll confess that generally I don’t care if a usage makes it to the top of the tower. Language changes. It’s a fact of life, like breathing. I don’t want to dictate the entirety of language to every writer and speaker.
What I want to do is advise my writers on what their readers accept, here and now, and what they don’t. I want to tell them where a change is on the formality scale compared to where their manuscript is.
Copyeditors don’t make the rules. There are other gatekeepers (prescriptivists) who make pronouncements about how language is and isn’t to be used, but they don’t make the rules, either. All language speakers together make the rules. Copyeditors can influence the rules as gatekeepers, but it’s really like holding back the tide. Our job is to understand the rules, how they’re changing, how the changes are perceived, and, thus, how best to apply the rules and changes.
What guidelines do you follow for judging when to allow new usages? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.