Usage rules don’t have physical bodies that make it easy to determine whether they’re living or dead. How can a copyeditor tell when it’s safe to be nauseated rather than nauseous? When is it permissible to beg a question rather than ask one?
First, you get to know the patient. Do people shun the usage rule in question? Does it get long articles written about it, arguing its virtues or sins? Copyeditors must stay up to date on language changes. Make sure your references, such as Garner’s Modern American Usage, are current and keep reading publications like Copyediting.
Next, observe the patient. How healthy does it seem? Does it frequently dance in the pages of hot new novels or tight-laced periodicals? Take advantage of sites that allow you to search the contents of current books, magazines, or newspapers, such as Google Books and the Corpus of Contemporary American English.
Finally, check in with other specialists. Have they declared the patient dead, or do they advise lots of fresh air and exercise? No one person gets to pronounce a usage dead; language users as a group must ignore the patient until he keels over. But the more death knells you hear and the less evidence of actual usage you see, the more likely that a certain usage has “shuffled off this mortal coil.”
Even when a usage rule has been pronounced dead and buried for quite some time, some rules rise from their graves to wander around in authors’ manuscripts, having been given new life by people who, for the most part, really should know better. These zombie rules, as Arnold Zwicky terms them, can make the most vigilant copyeditors seems as though their brain has been eaten when they blindly follow a rule that died long ago.
The solution, of course, is identify those zombies and then kill them. Ruthlessly strike them from your manuscripts! Point them out to authors, supervisors, and colleagues. Create a mob and kill those zombies once and for all.
You can join Copyediting’s mob this Thursday during our audio conference Kill the Zombie Rules: Usage Rules That You Can Bury for Good with John McIntyre. Bring your suspected zombies with you for a positive identification and permanent annihilation.
Hope to see you there!