A Battle Between Rules and Reality

As soon as you start to dig very deep into grammar, you find a problem. There are two diametrically opposed ways of viewing grammar. In fact, there’s very nearly an all-out war between people who view grammar from these different angles. These are referred to as prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar.

Grammar police

Grammar police (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

The difference between the two is relatively simple. Prescriptive grammarians decide or “prescribe” what usage is right and what is wrong. Descriptive grammarians, on the other hand, observe and “describe” what grammar looks like in every day use. Prescriptive grammarians seek precise rules and value judgements. Descriptive grammarians seek acceptance, welcome change and are skeptical of neat answers. In short, what each group holds dear is viewed with disdain by the other group.

I grew up as a prescriptive grammarian. I was taught a mind-blowing number of incredibly precise rules. Later, as I studied language more in depth, I began to see many places where the prescriptive approach fails. It simply cannot allow for language change. Both Shakespeare and our grandchildren are declared hopelessly “wrong.” I became a cautious descriptivist.

As I moved into a career, things became increasingly complicated. When I put on my copyediting hat, it was convenient to be a prescriptivist because strict rules make the job easier. In fact, they only seemed to make it easier. Strict prescriptivist rules helped me come up with a “right” answer, but they did very little to ingratiate me to authors or other editors. Writing is an art. A little prescriptivism seems to please some audiences, but it can alienate other audiences and stifle creativity.

Teaching English to non-native speakers was even more complicated. As a learner, it is much easier to memorize a concrete rule than to internalize a descriptive concept. Language tests require prescriptive grammar rules. a learner who never reaches beyond these rules, however, will always sound stilted and overly formal in the real world. Such a learner will be completely lost by an attempt to follow a casual conversation over a drink.

Editing textbooks for non-native speakers makes the whole situation even more complicated. Learners seek “authentic” language, which is, almost by definition, the kind of language described by descriptive grammarians. At the same time, they’re often woefully underprepared to understand this language, forcing many textbook publishers to create what are effectively prescriptivist rules to address casual language.

All of this must surely sound complicated, but the challenges for language professionals are real. Somehow, we must strike a balance between warring camps. Editors must keep both approaches to grammar in mind and choose what is most appropriate for the work at hand. Educators must also choose the most appropriate approach for the goals of each student. But how can we find the balance without falling into a grammatical quagmire?


Why should I have my ebook professionally edited?

Recently a woman I’ve known for many years mentioned that she was considering self-publishing an e-book. She wasn’t particularly interested in making money, but she wanted to get her story out. More than that, she wanted people to take her seriously. “I want to ask you to copyedit it. How much would you want?”

After we had discussed the details and I had agreed to the work, I considered how refreshing it was to see a new author consider serious editing of her first publicly distributed project. Her project wasn’t that long, but she recognized that a good editor could help her improve her work.

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

A Picture of an eBook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The point was driven home a few hours later when I was skimming through a self-published Kindle ebook. The book was full of grammar errors and missing words. I’m sure the author was intelligent and talented. He probably read through the book carefully before it was published. He may have even asked his wife or a friend to look over it for him, but many people were probably turned off by the end product. Although the content had nothing to do with language or grammar, the writer certainly lost credibility with a number of readers simply because of these mistakes.

Clearly, many such books would enjoy much greater success if authors made sure that their books were edited properly. Still, many authors simply dismiss this possibility out of hand. Why is that?

First, many authors believe that an editor will ruin their work.

This is an easy concern to understand. Unfortunately, almost every author has had a writing edited so severely that the author no longer even recognized the work. I’ve had that same experience myself—more than once. Fortunately, though, a good professional editor will work hard to ensure that your work retains your own voice. Such an editor will expect you to disagree with some of her changes and will be prepared to come up with alternatives or change things back. With this editor, you, the author, will feel that the work is even more yours after the editing than it was when you gave it to the editor. Your work will look great.

Second, many authors believe that they don’t need an editor.

You remember your high school English classes, and you’ve revised and revised your work. You even had your brother read it and offer advice. Surely your work is ready for publication. I’m sure you’ve improved your writing a great deal through this process, but it’s probably not ready for publication. Copy editors specialize in making a work internally consistent. They check minute grammar points that may not occur to you but drive some readers to insanity. They check the formatting of the work to ensure it will look great. Most of all, they do whatever it takes to make the writing work for you and, especially, for your readers. You can’t pass that up!

Third, many authors believe that editing is too expensive.

The truth is, for self-publishers on a budget, editing can be expensive. It’s not, however, as expensive as getting bad press because you missed a few simple mistakes. Many books make the best-sellers list unexpectedly due to word-of-mouth. (Remember 50 Shades of Grey?) It’s great if this happens, but more often a good book never reaches its potential because it was never properly edited. A self-publisher can easily lose more money due to bad reviews, even bad Amazon reviews, than would have been spent on professional editing. Editing can help you make money.

If you are considering self-publishing, I would urge you to strongly consider having a professional editor look over your work. Feel free to ask the editor for previous experience and references to ensure that you have found an editor who will benefit you and your project, but don’t lose out on a great result for fear of losing too much money or independence to an editor.