Traps for Proofreaders and Copy-editors
We think we know what we mean by standard English. If pushed we will waffle our way to a definition and talk about BBC English, received pronunciation, educated English and at some point in this vain attempt we will realise that we can only vaguely describe what we mean and that definition is impossible. In the UK we do not have an academy which lays down the law about the English language; there is no prescriptive system. The language has evolved and changed over centuries and will continue to do so. There are many variations on normal.
There is not, and never was, a golden age from which we have fallen. We have dictionaries and hundreds of textbooks which may help or hinder (some are dangerous), but they do not have power over the language; they merely take snapshots which bear the opinions of their authors. Grammars written a hundred years ago are significantly different from those on Amazon or in Waterstones today. Even twenty years ago “standards” were different: that is, advice was different. And if you were to examine books on English usage published in the same year you would find many differing opinions. Try getting a standard view on the split infinitive or beginning a sentence with a conjunction, for example!
Before the eighteenth century there was little or no attempt to regulate the language. Those who worked for Caxton (more on him later) in the fifteenth century had to learn to proofread, but they had no standard rules of spelling or grammar to keep. Standardisation was tried by many authors and, guess what? They disagreed vehemently with each other! Eventually, grammars were produced which became widely used and these were imposed on a few generations of schoolchildren. These grammars were huge publishing successes but damaged the development of English for over a hundred years. They are still responsible for many misconceptions and arguments.
Students who attend our courses to learn to proofread or learn to copy-edit (or who do our correspondence courses) sometimes bear these old scars. They argue passionately that a word must be spelled in a certain way even when the Oxford Dictionary gives an alternative version. On points of usage they will disagree with the latitude given by Fowler’s Modern English Usage or any standard textbook. Now, the point is this: we all have the choice; we can stick to “rules” we were taught at school even if we were badly taught. But if we want to learn to proofread or to copy-edit we must not impose those rules on the poor author! There is nothing inherently wrong with having language prejudices, but a didactic approach to proofreading and copy-editing is wrong-headed and commercially disastrous for a freelance copy-editor or proofreader.
Example for Proofreaders and Copy-editors
There are many examples. Future posts will deal with lots of them; here’s one to be going on with. (By the way, try to get rid of the hanging preposition in the last sentence. Mmm…)
The word none was traditionally regarded as singular. Therefore I was taught that “none of us was going to the park” was correct and that “none of us were going to the park” was wrong. “Were” is the plural form of the verb. It has become clear over the years, however, that more people regard none as a plural and that it is acceptable to follow it with a plural verb. When we learn to proofread (or learn to copy-edit) we have to be careful not to impose our own view either way. What we do in private is our own business! (Up to a point, anyway.)