I’m going to ask you to do something for me. It could also be difficult or even repellent, if you’re a really bad case. Editors: I want you to switch off your inner grammar-pedant.
The infamous greengrocer’s apostrophe attracts many responses from editorial types, ranging from the heated (but very rare) “I’m going to march up to that shop guy and tell him to fix that error, just watch me!” to the milder “My partner will just love my anecdote about that mistake tonight” to the modern alternative “Where’s my iPhone? That photo’s going straight on Twitter/Instagram”.
I know you’ve had these thoughts, and I have too, as my long-suffering husband bears witness. But I am making a new determination right now: I am going to switch off the pernickety, know-better side of my brain whenever I can, and hold my tongue if I can’t. Why? Let me explain.
1. It drives me nuts. In daily life, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing signs, notices, and instructions with spelling and grammatical errors. I’m a seether: a problem, once noted, will bother me every single time I pass that sign. I’d really love it if I just didn’t notice those errors, but as that’s not going to happen, I will settle for calming the inner voice that wants to get a permanent marker and graffiti my editorial wrath (plus corrections, of course) all over that sign that says “Parking” Strickly for Customer’s.
2. It doesn’t achieve much. I’m not saying it’s bad in itself to notice mistakes, because I believe that everyday English deserves good handling just as much as a formal publication does. Most often, though, the only person we’re educating with our observations is the family member, fellow editor, or Twitter follower who receives our wisdom – over the dinner table, at work, or online. Of course, there will always be people who just love to share pithy observations about the accidental gems of rich* everyday English usage they have found. But I reckon I don’t need to add to that thread. Not while the “Blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks exists to make me chuckle, anyway (I know, I shouldn’t indulge…).
3. It gives people the wrong idea about what editors do and what we think about. Have you ever felt that people – clients, employers, or authors – struggle sometimes with the idea that you do more than fix literals and spot grammatical problems? Ever heard a non-editorial colleague say they’d be a great editor because they’re always spotting spelling errors in the supermarket? I bet.
In my own practice, I like to emphasise that error detection and correction are only a part of the text work an editor does. The rest of the edit, after all, represents the bulk of the work in many projects; then there’s the ‘non-text’ work we do around communicating (expertly) with authors and publishers/clients, project management, and so on.
I’m not trying to underplay the importance of spotting grammatical problems, spelling boo-boos, and errant apostrophes – far from it. But I think it’s helpful to reflect on how we can individually challenge the editor-as-grammar-fascist stereotype. And if you wear that label with pride, as many do, consider whether you may be underselling the other valuable services you provide by going along with the image. Funny or not, if your family roll their eyes when you point out that silly error, chances are you’re over-indulging in the editor’s license to nit-pick.
So, here’s what I propose. Let’s kick that greengrocer’s apostrophe myth to one side and focus on the huge, constructive contributions that editors make, whether that’s helping authors to achieve clear, polished English, restructuring awkward passages of text, or any of the dozens of other ways we fix, polish, hone, and otherwise make a book ready for its star turn.
Are you going to join me in my mission to calm your inner grammar-pedant? Let me know if you agree or disagree!
*Diplomatic language in use