Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Rules are (sometimes) meant to be broken

A few days ago a friend asked “What say you, Elizabeth?” on my Facebook page. She had shared an article titled “Dear Pedants: Your Fave Grammar Rule Is Probably Fake” and knew I would probably have an opinion or two because I’m a copy editor. In fact, my profile on Facebook says: “Copy Editor. I read the dictionary for fun.” As I told a new acquaintance once, “I’m the funniest copy editor you’ll ever meet. Of course it’s a very low bar.”

For the past eight years I have been the copy editor for Land Line Magazine and “Land Line Now” at OOIDA.

I finally had a chance to sit down with this article, read, and reflect. Rules vary according to usage and the style in a given field. In the first sentence of this paragraph, I used the Oxford comma, but The Associated Press, or AP, style (which we use here at Land Line) dictates that I remove the final comma in a simple series. Also, immediately above, I used a comma after “In the first sentence” although some would say a short introductory phrase does not require a comma.

When I edit, I keep the reader in mind and prize clarity above all. I agree with this sentence in the article: “It is indeed important to learn the accepted linguistic conventions of the standard dialect for reasons of communication, clarity and even persuasive style.” As author Dorothy Allison so eloquently put it at a literary convention last month, you should know the rules. Then f*** ’em (her language, not mine).

I taught composition full-time at a state university and a Jesuit university and have been a copy editor for three decades; hence, I know the rules and have a bank of stylebooks on my desk. But I also edit “by ear” and will split infinitives, will start sentences with conjunctions (see this one), and will keep “only” in the wrong place if moving it sounds awful. One of my bugaboos is “impact” used as a verb, but I leave it alone in direct quotes.

Then why make any changes at all to punctuation, word choice, grammar or style? Why fix little mistakes, confusing syntax or ambiguities? Well, all those errors in copy are much like dings, scrapes or dents on a vehicle. The average reader can look past a few, but if the story is covered in them, it’s a sorry sight.

For 10 years I edited nationally syndicated comic strips. My job required making corrections while simultaneously protecting the setup or the gag. Not only did the reader need to “get it,” but the panel or strip had to remain hilarious. That was an invaluable lesson. I’m an excellent speller, but I would never have changed “fud” to “food” in The Far Side. Note where I put “never” in the previous sentence. I think “I never would have changed” sounds stilted when discussing comic strips. 

A pedant is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad editor of comic strips. Note: I know copy editors and teachers who would have deleted words in the previous sentence and written or typed or snarled “redundant!” That kind of mindless editing or proofing rightly infuriates writers. In baseball, the tie goes to the runner. In copy editing, the tie goes to the writer as long as the reader will understand, the point is clear, and no egregious errors are made. If the writer thinks “I wrote that well” after countless tweaks have been made, the editor has not trampled on the copy and has done his or her job.

The English language is constantly evolving and requires writers, editors and readers to keep up. Overheard in Land Line just about every day are discussions on that very topic: “Two words, one word, or hyphenated?” “Do these changes make sense?” “What’s another word for ... ?” I’m happy to say that no pedants with fake rules are allowed in here.