Editor vs. linguist


My best friend simply cannot tolerate poor punctuation and is outraged on almost a daily basis by “apostrophe abuse” (that’s one of her favourite phrases) and “ungrammatical mauling of written English” (I’m putting words into her mouth here but it’s something that I can imagine her saying). She sees me as an ally in her cause – because I’m an editor and because I studied linguistics – and I guess I am … to some extent.

You see, an editor and a linguist are two very different things. Sometimes they can agree but sometimes they come up on completely opposite sides of a debate. If we define them as ‘editor = pedant’ and ‘linguist = embraces change and variety’ then you can see how this might happen. So can you be both? I’d certainly like to think so!

Among my friends (and probably my colleagues, too) I have a bit of a reputation for being a grammar taskmaster. Now this doesn’t mean that I carry a red pen in my bag and wield it willy-nilly, correcting every badly-written menu, notice or sign I come across. And I don’t criticize and judge others for making mistakes (well, maybe just a little bit – and only if said mistakes fall into one of my two categories below). But I am the go-to person when someone wants a CV written or a covering letter checked, and for other day-to-day grammar/spelling conundrums.

There was a guest slot on BBC Breakfast this morning, where two former editors were being interviewed about their new book, Grammar for Grown-ups. Unlike most ‘grammar novels’, this one sounds like it might be a little less militant and uncompromising than something like Eats, Shoots & Leaves (I mentioned in a previous blog post that this is described as ‘the zero tolerance approach to punctuation’). The authors of Grammar for Grown-ups, Katherine Fry and Rowena Kirton, said that their book is there to help everyone make fewer grammar mistakes but also to emphasize that good clarity and communication are really important in so many social situations. It’s this second point that I think really hits the nail on the head.

I do think it is important that we get things ‘right’ when:

a) it would otherwise be a barrier to communication and understanding. There’s a shop near to where I live with a big sign outside that says “Donna’s Wig’s”, which always prompts me to think “Donna’s wig’s what?” (Is it red? Has it flown off? etc.). Now this might not necessarily be a major barrier to communication (i.e. we know that this is the name of the shop) but in other contexts that misplaced apostrophe could cause all manner of confusion.

b) the situation calls for us to do so. Like when writing an academic essay or a CV and covering letter (particularly if you’re applying for a job as an editor!) or when developing materials for English language learners.

So where do you see yourself on the editor-linguist scale, and when do you think it’s important that we get things ‘right’?


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