“Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter, condemned by every syllable she ever uttered. By law she should be taken out and hung, for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue. . . . If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do, why, you might be selling flowers, too! ”—Henry Higgins, My Fair Lady
The musical My Fair Lady, an adaptation of the play Pygmalion, centers on Professor Henry Higgins seeking to transform the street girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady by “correcting” her pronunciation and grammar. When he accomplishes this, Eliza is left feeling lost, not able to fit in with the lower class of her birth but not fully comfortable in the class of the wealthy either. The audience is left to wonder, was it right for Professor Higgins to change her the way he did?
Regardless of the interpretation of the play, Professor Higgins brings up questions that editors must ask themselves as they interact with others: When is it okay to correct individuals? In what settings is it appropriate to call an individual out on bad grammar or poor punctuation? Many editors, like Henry Higgins, have education, training, and experience to back up our assertions, but do we ever overstep our bounds?
I certainly have my pet peeves (double spaces after punctuation, for instance). However, when I receive an email from my grandmother with a missing comma, it would be entirely inappropriate to reply with a red, marked-up copy of her letter. If a passerby were to use the word “irregardless,” I would be stepping out of bounds by pointing out that the correct word was “regardless.” Other situations, however, are a little less cut-and-dry. For instance, a friend of mine hopes to be a news reporter, but he has a terrible habit of saying “Me and her/him.” I have another friend who loves to write and share her stories with me outside of editing, but whose dialogue is cheesy, making it sometimes difficult to compliment the story.
Other editors will have their own answers to when to edit, whether for spoken or written language. My personal philosophy is to only edit when requested to do so. I am happy to point out that the correct usage is “He/She and I,” not “Me and her/him.” I would love to help my friend smooth out her dialogue and polish her story. However, I will not do so without their permission, or I might turn into Professor Henry Higgins myself, condemning all the world for its butchering of the English language.