As a copyeditor and president of a copyediting/copywriting firm, there are times I find great satisfaction in what I do. Like the time I helped a group of consultants turn a garbled mess of technospeak into an award-winning presentation. Or the time I stopped an IT firm from submitting a proposal describing its expertise in porker productivity. (It was supposed to be worker productivity?efficiency, in other words.)
Then there are times when I feel as though I?m spinning my wheels. ?I?ve changed since to because once again! And while to whereas! And thank goodness I caught that pesky over and changed it to more than. Readers would never have understood what the author meant if I hadn?t!? Of course readers would have understood.
But these are the types of reflexive, mechanical changes that we make as editors because ? well, because someone told us to a long time ago. Guess what? I?ve quit making them. Not because preserving distinctions isn?t important?in fact, it?s terribly important and one of our responsibilities as editors of medical journals and other industry-essential documents.. Distortions of usage can affect meaning. The primary role of an editor is to clarify meaning and ensure that a writer?s message will be understood easily and precisely by readers.
And I love being an editor, but I feel strongly that some of the changes we?ve customarily made because ?that?s how it?s done? just aren?t relevant anymore. Our role is not to insist on usage distinctions that don?t affect meaning and that, frankly, no one cares about anymore?much less understands. Doing so reduces our credibility, trivializes our profession, and positions us as little more than mechanical word-switchers, dogmatically replacing one perfectly good word with another.
Worrying over unimportant details detracts us from our true role: ensuring that the written word will be understood effortlessly by readers. That?s the job that I want. And dagnabit, that?s the job I?m going to have.
Starting today, I?m going to stop making the following 10 editorial ?corrections.? I just don?t believe in them anymore. Most contemporary usage guides agree with me. Do you?
Sam?s Top 10 List of ?Errors? to Stop ?Fixing?
1.Since to because. In a nutshell, Garner?s Modern American Usage says of since, ?This subordinating conjunction may bear a sense either of time or of logical connection.? And it?s been used that way for centuries (see the New Testament, Luke 1:13, for example: ?Mary said to the angel, ?How can this be, since I am a virgin???). Yet we?ve all been taught that since must be changed to because when it denotes a sense of causation. I?ve even been marked down on an editing test for not doing so. Folks, listen to Garner: Unless using since risks actual temporal confusion?and it rarely does?feel free to use it. Readers will understand you.
2.Additionally to in addition. Every corporation I?ve worked for has asked me to replace the former with the latter. But I just checked the Webster?s and ? additionally is in there, listed as an adverb synonymous with furthermore. I?m using it.
3.Over to more than. Here?s what the New York Public Library Writer?s Guide to Style and Usage says: ?Despite a long and illustrious battle by grammarians to preserve the distinction between countable units (more than) and cumulative quantities (over), all dictionaries, most commentators, and many excellent writers make no distinction between the use of more than and over.? Hey?if over is good enough for ?many excellent writers,? it?s good enough for me.
4.Compare with to compare to, and vice versa. I understand the traditional distinction between these two terms: compare with contrasts dissimilar things; compare to ? umm ? compares similar things. But do you honestly think that the following sentence (from New York Times technology writer Eric Taub) doesn?t make sense? ?The [Panasonic] ad points out plasma?s superior contrast, color rendition ? and durability when compared to LCD TVs.? Taub?s writing sounds so natural that I just can?t find fault with it. Distinctions that are this fine?and that only editors care about or understand?seem like good candidates for discarding.
5.Like to as or as if. Maintaining this usage distinction requires knowledge of grammar?sadly, on the wane. From about the 17th to the mid-20th centuries, like was allowed to serve only as an adjective. As Garner writes, ?in traditional usage, like is a preposition that governs nouns and noun phrases, not a conjunction that governs verbs or clauses.? Thus, ?The movie ended just as [not like] we hoped it would? and ?It seems as if [not like] we?ll never finish writing this proposal.? Yet the conjunctive use of like has long been ?a usage on the borderline of acceptability in American English? (Robert C. Pooley, 1946); many other teachers and commentators have agreed that ?indefensible it certainly is not? (George P. Krapp, 1969). If it?s good enough for Shakespeare, Keats, authorized translators of the Bible, and Robert W. Burchfield?who wrote in 1922 that ?the distribution patterns suggest that the long-standing resistance to this nippy little word is beginning to crumble as a new century approaches??the conjunctive like is good enough for me. ?Like Scarlet O?Hara, my sister vowed to think about everything tomorrow? many be informal English, but I will not edit it as as. Conversely, I will not edit as to like in a conservative context?I?ll leave what?s there just like it is, as it pleased its author?s ear.
6.While to although or whereas. Hypercorrect editors insist that while be used only to denote the passage of time; for years, I?ve dutifully swapped it for although or whereas. But as Garner points out, ?While is a more relaxed and conversational term than although or whereas? and is a perfectly fine replacement. Relaxed and conversational writing is appropriate in many contexts where whereas would sound stilted. (Side note: Though is acceptable for although in all but the most formal writing?and when the ear wants it.)
7.On the other hand. I am universally told that if on the other hand is used, it must be preceded by on the one hand. Tell it to Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda: ?At a local used-book warehouse I seize upon a lovely copy of the English edition of John Collier?s His Monkey Wife. ? Alas, it?s the second printing. On the other hand, it?s only $7.? Do you seriously want to tell Dirda that his meaning isn?t clear?or that his phrasing is incorrect?
Although a caring managing editor could convince me to make the seven changes for her publications, I?m adamant about the three that follow. I?m not hard to work with?really?but I simply refuse to follow these ?rules? any longer.
You might think that most editors stopped following these nonrules a long time ago, but supervisors and reviewers routinely still insist on them:
8.?You can?t start a sentence with and, but, so, and because.? This groundless superstition is based in a belief that starting a sentence with words like and or but will result in a sentence fragment. It doesn?t. Moreover, some of the most beautiful writing in the English language uses this convention. I give you Emily Dickinson, for example: ?Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.? And F. Scott Fitzgerald: ?So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.?
9.?You can?t end a sentence with a preposition.? One of our most important concerns as editors is to ensure that writing is clear and understandable. So I prefer ?He?s the one guy I won?t go out with? to ?He?s the one guy with whom I won?t go out.? Both sentences are correct, but the second is less clear?and would sound natural only coming from the mouth of a Jane Austen heroine. If her heroines used the word guy, that is. Or went out with people.
10.?You mustn?t split infinitives.? You can find two whole pages of commentary on this topic in Garner, but I?ll summarize here: ?? the rule against ?splitting an infinitive? contradicts the rules of grammar and the practice of our best writers.? I couldn?t agree more, but many writers still insist on this rule. In fact, I once attended a seminar by a Famous Editor who said that he still teaches his students to follow this rule. His justification? Other writers might think that his students are incorrect if they split an infinitive?even though they?re absolutely not.
That?s the kind of logic that I want to eradicate. This logic frightens us into upholding nonsensical or dated rules lest we appear to be ignorant. It tells us to horde our editorial rules, however trivial, as proof of our competence.
I no longer believe that they bring any value to a manuscript; on the contrary, I think making these ?fixes? wastes editorial time, alters an author?s text unnecessarily, and often creates stilted prose that?s not in keeping with the author?s style or intent. But, take heart, readers: The style book of one of the companies I work for includes the no?split infinitive rule and a few of the other rules listed above that I don?t follow?and haven?t for four years now. And the company still employs me. The lesson I take from that? If you?re a conscientious editor, your clients are going to hang on to you?even (or maybe especially) if you explain your commitment distinguishing spurious rules from sound contemporary ones. Clients come to us because we?re professional editors?and few clients would willingly publish old-fashioned?sounding content. Don?t they deserve the best of our professional editorial practices from us?
Many clients and editors still cherish what Fowler called ?sacred superstitions.? As more of us make an effort to educate clients about why we?re resisting them, over time they?ll continue to lose traction; that?s the only way they will. And when that happens, we can pay more attention to the things that really matter.