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Copy editing is much more than dotting i's, crossing t's
Red Pen for Oct. 1

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Date published: 10/15/2012

By Laura Moyer

SOON AFTER I started the Red Pen last year, I wrote a column blithely declaring myself a prescriptivist. I'm a copy editor, I said, and copy editors are supposed to be prescriptivists.

A linguist from Perth, Australia, scolded me via email. It was OK for me to be a prescriptivist if I couldn't help myself, Daniel Midgley wrote, but I shouldn't contaminate others with my beliefs.

I apologized for contaminating him and offered to send a bar of soap.

No need, Midgley replied. "I've already boiled my computer."

Made me laugh. It also made me think more honestly about what good editing is and isn't.

I do think copy editing requires a degree of prescriptivism, if prescriptivism is defined as adherence to rules of standard English.

Copy editors correct spellings according to a chosen dictionary. We apply punctuation to enhance meaning. At The Free Lance-Star we follow Associated Press style, a set of rules for writing with clarity and consistency. We try to keep racial slurs and the most blistering swear words out of the paper unless they're vital to the reader's understanding.

But the copy editor's job isn't merely to wrangle commas and make sure the words are spelled right. Good copy editing requires thought, nuance and a respect for how people actually use the language.

It's prescriptivism, but it is a thoughtful prescriptivism, in which the copy editor questions and sometimes declines to enforce certain teachings of standard English.

That might not satisfy my anti-prescriptive critic from Perth. It also wouldn't satisfy a different type of critic, one who insists that the rules of English are absolute and should be obeyed, period.

One such reader called me this summer in genuine distress over the loss of a rule she was taught by a beloved high school English teacher. She saw failure to follow that rule as a relaxation of standards and a symptom of a society in decline.

The rule? That the word "done" should not be used to mean "completed" or "finished," as in the sentences "My work here is done" or "I'm done eating."

My response disappointed her. Not only do I not agree with the rule, I don't even agree that it is a rule. I think it's merely a preference of that long-ago English teacher who thought "done" sounded unrefined.


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