Our changing language: are editors doomèd?

An article by David Shariatmadari in the Guardian has inspired a bit of a buzz these past few days. It’s about the mutability of language, and how the quest for perfect English is a forlorn one. Read “Why it’s time to stop worrying about the decline of the English language” here (it’ll only take about 15–20 minutes of your time).

Copy editors and writers are inextricably tied up with the changing language. In my 20+ years in the business alone, I’ve seen English change – new words coming in, words changing their meanings and so on. I like the concept described in the article about generational change; words and phrases (or particular usages) that seem normal to teens feel alien and “wrong” to the older generation. They probably forget that they caused equal consternation to their own parents’ generation back in the day with all their groovy talk.

Are we gatekeepers or facilitators?

What is the role of the copy editor faced with an ever-changing language? The instinctive answer would be to resist change, and to enforce correctness where we see grammatical wrongdoing. But that misses the point of language, which is to express meaning in the best possible way to the audience it’s aimed at.

Copywriters know that if we’re writing copy aimed at retired people, the language, pace and tone will be very different to copy aimed at students. It’s not because elderly people should be spoken down to; it’s just that the language they feel comfortable with is different. We are, after all, in the businesses of informing and selling; brands that share values with their customers have a head start over the competition.

As copy editors and writers are the ones who decide what material is put in front of readers, we therefore have a role in shaping language, but we must also take care to reflect it. If we try too hard to stick to the rules we were taught at school, we’re destined to get wronger and wronger as we grow. It’s a weird concept that people working with language can actually get less experienced as they get older, but it’s true of those who remain too set in their ways.

statue of mother holding baby

Thou shalt not …

A classic example is not starting a sentence with a conjunction. It’s a rule so drilled into the young me that it helped me to learn what a conjunction is. But look; I just went and did it. And I do it all the time. There are still those who complain about it, but they are swimming against the flow. Ultimately, just ask yourself: does starting a sentence with a conjunction actually damage English language? Or does it allow you to break concepts into bite-sized sentences with natural flow and pauses, rather like spoken English? It also removes the need to cumbersome words like “alternatively” or “additionally” every other sentence.

Now ask yourself if the word or phrase you’re uncomfortable with is as bad as starting a sentence with “Or”. It’s probably no better or worse.

So what’s the point of editors?

All this brings us to the crux of the matter. If nothing is right and nothing is wrong, why pay people copy edit or proofread your work?

All marketing is the act of persuading potential customers that your product or service is the one to choose. An important factor is showing you’re trustworthy, careful, diligent and conscientious. Customers notice things like sloppy grammar, overuse of buzzwords (especially when trying to appeal to a younger audience) and awkward sentences. OK, some customers will notice. But why try to appeal to half an audience when you can attract the whole?

Don’t forget, the change of language is glacial – it’s not in a state of flux. As the article shows, it tends to change a bit every generation, but there’s always a core rightness that stays the same. Over time, those foundations shift, but stray too far and you lose your audience.

Analogy Time

Think of the scene in Back to the Future where [spoiler] the prom audience is given a sneak preview of rock ‘n’ roll in a blues-dominated era and they love it. But as soon as Marty drags the genre forward to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s offsprings (80s heavy metal) they stop dancing and stare at the stage in disbelief.

Something familiar has been modified, but there are enough anchors to where it came from for it to be understood. But in real life, people needed to understand the grammar of rock ‘n’ roll before they were ready for heavy metal. It took about ten years to happen.[/spoiler]

Another analogy is Formula One motor racing. Every year, the rules change slightly. Tyres change. RPM is limited. Aerodynamics get new regulations. But nobody would say that it’s no longer Formula One, even though watching footage from the 1950s makes it look like a different sport. But it’s this year’s rules you have to obey; not last year’s.

Write and edit for the moment you’re living in, because that will invariably be right.

Be natural

Good copy editors and writers understand this, and don’t try and preserve their style of reading and writing in amber. In fact, we love observing and using the changing language. We understand that there’s a natural pace to change, and that forcing modernity is just as bad as forcing tradition.

Image: Nick van den Berg