Linguistics professor and author David Crystal has a new book out, Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, and like his previous books, it’s well worth the read.
Crystal is known for writing entertaining, down-to-earth books on language, including Spell It Out (the history of English spelling) and Words in Time and Place (a look at the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary).
Crystal’s new book isn’t an exhaustive history (read: it won’t put you to sleep while you lounge on the beach). Instead, it hits the highlights of grammar’s story: how we acquire it as children, how it has been taught over the years, how we need to understand it in context, and how it changes.
I enjoyed the book for learning more about grammar and thinking about it in new ways. Copyeditors can get more out of it than entertainment, though. It’s easy for us to get into a rut with our work; going back to basics can get us thinking about grammar and editing in new ways, pushing us to be better editors.
For example, chapters 17–19 look at grammatical structure and writing style. Crystal emphasizes how context informs the way grammar is applied. We’re encouraged to investigate why we make the choices we do. Because being conscious of the decisions helps us make better decisions. And for editors, that can be doing better work for our authors.
Let’s say you’re editing an essay. The author has used both you and one frequently. You creates a personal tone, while one creates an objective tone. You’ll want to make pronoun usage consistent, of course. The decision isn’t just a matter of counting usages of each word and picking the one that appears more often. We need to look at grammatical decisions the author has made as well. Does the essay contain many long, complex sentences and use passive voice frequently? That will indicate an objective and formal style, even if you is used more often than one. A writing style is the culmination of decisions like these.
Making Sense can get editors thinking about grammar in a new way, and it can guide editing instructors in how we might better teach our editing students grammar.