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Guest post in The Red Pen: Spotting linguistic baloney

Even though I eat linguistic prescriptivists for breakfast, I do have a soft spot for the odd copy editor, including Laura Moyer of On her blog, The Red Pen, she alludes to a clash we had once:

Soon after I started the Red Pen last year, I wrote a column blithely declaring myself a prescriptivist. I’m a copy editor, I said, and copy editors are supposed to be prescriptivists.

A linguist from Perth, Australia, scolded me via email. It was OK for me to be a prescriptivist if I couldn’t help myself, he wrote, but I shouldn’t contaminate others with my beliefs.

I apologized for contaminating him and offered to send a bar of soap.

No need, he replied. “I’ve already boiled my computer.”

Yes, that would be me. She continues by pointing out the need for prescriptive rules, at least in the editing sphere (and I can agree with that), but she does allow that some of the rules editors live by do seem a little arbitrary.

As a copy editor I’ve perpetuated many of [these rules]. I truly regret it, because these aren’t rules of good writing. They’re baloney.

So how does a careful 21st-century copy editor tell baloney rules from good practice?

I thought this was such a good question that I wrote a response, and I’m very pleased that she’s run it as a guest column on her blog:

A linguist responds: Guest column from Daniel Midgley

It’s mostly about using the Google Ngram Viewer to find patterns in what writers actually do.

So, for instance, what about Laura’s idea that “comprised of” is always wrong? Let’s take a look at the data and see what authors really do. We head to the Google Ngram Viewer, look up the search term “is comprised of, comprises“, and:

Looks like ‘comprises’ has the edge. The data breaks in Laura’s direction. Does that mean it’s wrong to say “The committee is comprised of…”? Not really. What it means is that if you’re trying to decide which to use, you’ll be safer going with the choice that many other writers have chosen. Doing it that way will help your writing fit into a body of work, seem more appropriate, and be less distracting.

It’s fine for editors to run a tight ship so their publications appear the way they want. But now it’s easy for them to look at real language data so their pronouncements will have more validity than just their own opinion. Descriptivism informing prescriptivism? Could be a paradigm shift.

1 Comment

  1. It is as you say: Laura Moyer is an odd copy editor!
    Thanks, Daniel. The first thing I looked up on Ngram was comprised of, comprises.

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