May 16, 2013

My Thesis

I’ve been putting this post off for a while for a couple of reasons: first, I was a little burned out and was enjoying not thinking about my thesis for a while, and second, I wasn’t sure how to tackle this post. My thesis is about eighty pages long all told, and I wasn’t sure how to reduce it to a manageable length. But enough procrastinating.

The basic idea of my thesis was to see which usage changes editors are enforcing in print and thus infer what kind of role they’re playing in standardizing (specifically codifying) usage in Standard Written English. Standard English is apparently pretty difficult to define precisely, but most discussions of it say that it’s the language of educated speakers and writers, that it’s more formal, and that it achieves greater uniformity by limiting or regulating the variation found in regional dialects. Very few writers, however, consider the role that copy editors play in defining and enforcing Standard English, and what I could find was mostly speculative or anecdotal. That’s the gap my research aimed to fill, and my hunch was that editors were not merely policing errors but were actively introducing changes to Standard English that set it apart from other forms of the language.

Some of you may remember that I solicited help with my research a couple of years ago. I had collected about two dozen manuscripts edited by student interns and then reviewed by professionals, and I wanted to increase and improve my sample size. Between the intern and volunteer edits, I had about 220,000 words of copy-edited text. Tabulating the grammar and usage changes took a very long time, and the results weren’t as impressive as I’d hoped they’d be. There were still some clear patterns, though, and I believe they confirmed my basic idea.

The most popular usage changes were standardizing the genitive form of names ending in -s (Jones’>Jones’s), which>that, towards>toward, moving only, and increasing parallelism. These changes were not only numerically the most popular, but they were edited at fairly high rates—up to 80 percent. That is, if towards appeared ten times, it was changed to toward eight times. The interesting thing about most of these is that they’re relatively recent inventions of usage writers. I’ve already written about which hunting on this blog, and I recently wrote about towards for Visual Thesaurus.

In both cases, the rule was invented not to halt language change, but to reduce variation. For example, in unedited writing, English speakers use towards and toward with roughly equal frequency; in edited writing, toward outnumbers towards 10 to 1. With editors enforcing the rule in writing, the rule quickly becomes circular—you should use toward because it’s the norm in Standard (American) English. Garner used a similarly circular defense of the that/which rule in this New York Times Room for Debate piece with Robert Lane Greene:

But my basic point stands: In American English from circa 1930 on, “that” has been overwhelmingly restrictive and “which” overwhelmingly nonrestrictive. Strunk, White and other guidebook writers have good reasons for their recommendation to keep them distinct — and the actual practice of edited American English bears this out.

He’s certainly correct in saying that since 1930 or so, editors have been changing restrictive which to that. But this isn’t evidence that there’s a good reason for the recommendation; it’s only evidence that editors believe there’s a good reason.

What is interesting is that usage writers frequently invoke Standard English in defense of the rules, saying that you should change towards to toward or which to that because the proscribed forms aren’t acceptable in Standard English. But if Standard English is the formal, nonregional language of educated speakers and writers, then how can we say that towards or restrictive which are nonstandard? What I realized is this: part of the problem with defining Standard English is that we’re talking about two similar but distinct things—the usage of educated speakers, and the edited usage of those speakers. But because of the very nature of copy editing, we conflate the two. Editing is supposed to be invisible, so we don’t know whether what we’re seeing is the author’s or the editor’s.

Arguments about proper usage become confused because the two sides are talking past each other using the same term. Usage writers, editors, and others see linguists as the enemies of Standard (Edited) English because they see them tearing down the rules that define it, setting it apart from educated but unedited usage, like that/which and toward/towards. Linguists, on the other hand, see these invented rules as being unnecessarily imposed on people who already use Standard English, and they question the motives of those who create and enforce the rules. In essence, Standard English arises from the usage of educated speakers and writers, while Standard Edited English adds many more regulative rules from the prescriptive tradition.

My findings have some serious implications for the use of corpora to study usage. Corpus linguistics has done much to clarify questions of what’s standard, but the results can still be misleading. With corpora, we can separate many usage myths and superstitions from actual edited usage, but we can’t separate edited usage from simple educated usage. We look at corpora of edited writing and think that we’re researching Standard English, but we’re unwittingly researching Standard Edited English.

None of this is to say that all editing is pointless, or that all usage rules are unnecessary inventions, or that there’s no such thing as error because educated speakers don’t make mistakes. But I think it’s important to differentiate between true mistakes and forms that have simply been proscribed by grammarians and editors. I don’t believe that towards and restrictive which can rightly be called errors, and I think it’s even a stretch to call them stylistically bad. I’m open to the possibility that it’s okay or even desirable to engineer some language changes, but I’m unconvinced that either of the rules proscribing these is necessary, especially when the arguments for them are so circular. At the very least, rules like this serve to signal to readers that they are reading Standard Edited English. They are a mark of attention to detail, even if the details in question are irrelevant. The fact that someone paid attention to them is perhaps what is most important.

And now, if you haven’t had enough, you can go ahead and read the whole thesis here.

Descriptivism, Editing, Prescriptivism, Usage 16 Replies to “My Thesis”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


16 thoughts on “My Thesis

    […] Owen, who shouts from the rooftops what I am muttering about in my chamber. He has a blog called Arrant Pedantry and has just finished a Master’s thesis on the subject of how far narrow-minded editors are […]

    Author’s gravatar

    Very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to summarize.

    Author’s gravatar

    This is very interesting, Jonathon, and thanks for making your thesis available. I look forward to read it later.

    Editing text for a US audience recently, I changed towards to toward several times, simply because it’s the norm in that context; whereas the s-form, though it’s what I use myself as an Irish English speaker, is dispreferred and even considered erroneous by many US readers. If the writer or publisher in question said, “Actually, I’m happy with towards – you can leave it alone”, I’d have no problem with that.

    I’m not surprised the reasoning behind these attitudes and conventions is circular, at least to some extent.

    Author’s gravatar

    “Usage writers, editors, and others see linguists as the enemies of Standard (Edited) English”

    Okay, as a former student of sociolinguistics (specifically discourse analysis) and current editor, I have to object here. There are actually a decent number of editors who are also linguists (or at least have studied linguistics), and I hate to see the two fields pitted against each other. They are somewhat overlapping yet quite distinct fields. More editors could benefit from studying linguistics, and more linguists should be studying editing and its effects on language, the way you are here. When will this pointless war between prescriptivism and descriptivism end? 😉

    And with that, I’m off to read the thesis. Thank you!

    Author’s gravatar

    per cent … OK …

    (mind, I’m writing from a BrE perspective, so your usage will differ)

    Author’s gravatar

    Catterel: I’m glad you liked it, but my goal wasn’t necessarily to debunk bad editing. I do raise the question of whether such edits are worth it. After all, editing costs money, and we edit under the assumption that we are adding value by improving the quality of the text. I think specific usage rules should be shown to have some benefit before we adopt them and try to enforce them everywhere in print.

    Braden and Stan: You’re very welcome. I think circularity is to some extent inescapable, because our expectations are shaped by our experiences. But I think it’s worth acknowledging the circularity and being conscious of the expectations that we’re creating. I’m not convinced that readers are clamoring for toward and the that/which rule or that they’re bothered when those rules aren’t followed, but we need more evidence.

    Erin: I was perhaps overgeneralizing there, but it’s true that there’s a lot of animosity. I think there are a lot of moderates on both sides, though, who see the value in the other’s field. And I definitely agree that there’s value in editors studying linguistics and linguists studying editing.

    Author’s gravatar

    When it comes to ‘toward/towards’ I think you need to narrow it down even further to ‘American Standard Edited English’. This Ngram graph suggests that while there has been a steady move from ‘towards’ to ‘toward’ in American books over the last two hundred years, ‘towards’ has remained dominant in British books, albeit with a slight increase in the use of ‘toward’.

    Author’s gravatar

    As a copy editor, I’m tickled to see an entire thesis and such intelligent thought devoted to my field. Thank you! I frequently make the changes you describe, but I generally do so in order to, first, impose consistency on a manuscript (many authors use a random mixture of “toward” and “towards” in a given work), and second, to maintain a stylistic coherence in a publisher’s works through application of the house style (with some exceptions that respect author preference). When I need to make a decision in imposing consistency, of course I’m going to use an established reference as my guide — Garner, say. It doesn’t mean that I find everything I change to be an egregious error, but it does mean that I’ve taken care to follow generally respected standards in making a manuscript look polished. These standards clearly change over time, and a good copy editor will be mindful of that evolution and keep up to date. Thanks again, Jonathon — I admire your work.

    Author’s gravatar

    Thank you, Dawn! I’m surprised I forgot to mention consistency in my post. Uniformity is often identified as an important aspect of standard languages, and editors do a lot to make texts uniform or consistent by editing out optional variation. As you said, these variants aren’t necessarily errors, but the major style and usage guides nevertheless recommend avoiding them in edited prose.

    Author’s gravatar

    Why is consistency so important to copy editors? I can see it for something like how to punctuate a plural possessive, but if I use “toward” on one page and “towards” on another, will that impair anyone’s comprehension, enjoyment, or engagement with the text? Ditto that/which; we see very good writers of English use both in contexts where standard copy-editing practice would call for a change. See, e.g.,

    Author’s gravatar

    OK, I’ll bite. Even for me, an inconsistency only in toward/towards is not going to ruin a piece of text. The thing is, Kirby, where would you like to draw the line? To you, consistency in a plural possessive is important; to someone else that might go completely unnoticed. If it’s “favourite” on one page and “favorite” on the next, does that bug you? How about if it’s “five” in one paragraph and “5” in the next (in the same kind of context)? How about if 1-M dashes and spaced en dashes and hyphens are thrown around at random, all meant to signify long dashes? If you add up enough inconsistencies, they become first distracting, then annoying, and finally do indeed “impair anyone’s comprehension, enjoyment, or engagement with the text.” Or at the very least they make the text look sloppy, and therefore may make a reader wonder whether the fact checking, for example, has been equally sloppy.

    Author’s gravatar

    Dawn, I guess that I would divide up the universe of standard copy-editor edits into two groups. Consistency in spelling would go into the first group; in the modern era we spell consistently. We follow rules for when to use a numeral and when to spell out the number, so that also goes into group one. But word choice often would be in group one; a writer should be free to pick “that” or “which” in front of a restrictive clause, “toward” or “towards,” etc.

    I suppose that it would take some linguistic analysis to figure out which group of words should stay unedited. The problem is that it isn’t so much the words as the writer. A writer who understands the language well and is choosing words deliberately–i.e. using a good ear to pick “which” over “that” or deciding that “towards” is right here and “toward” not–should be left alone. A writer who is throwing them in carelessly should not.

    I do have a problem with the phenomenon that Jonathon identified in his thesis: alteration of actual CORRECT usage by copy editing. It robs the language of some of its richness and nuance. Copy editing does far more good than harm, but I think that it could improve in that area.

    Author’s gravatar

    I agree with you 100%, Kirby. Thoughtful, careful writers who are making deliberate choices have a right to those choices. Pedantic, dogmatic copy editors who run roughshod over the work of such authors give the rest of us a bad name. If an author were to feel strongly about using both “toward” and “towards” in a single work, or using “which” both restrictively and non-restrictively, I’d absolutely let it go (although of course I’d point out any instances in which clarity suffered). Most of the time, though, such inconsistencies are not deliberate, and most authors are happy to have them fixed. (Most authors are not Atwood or Pollan; many are subject matter experts for whom writing is a secondary occupation.) That’s been my experience, anyway.

    Author’s gravatar

    I think that word choice may need to be queried, but should never be changed (unless it is factually wrong, obviously: “Tuesday” for “February” is an error, period), and that “toward/towards” falls into this category. A house rule that told me to change “furze” to “gorse”, for example, would be broken, and I think everyone would agree that it should be ignored: though furze is gorse, the word “furze” has a very different flavor than “gorse” which would affect the impact of the prose.

    Author’s gravatar

    Wow that’s an interesting thought about Standard English. Many would benefit from your thesis, your point of view is exciting!

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