Prescriptions and Descriptions

At the beginning of My Fair Lady, the linguist Professor Henry Higgins at first seems to be fairly innocent, annotating the language of those around him. He captures the speech in his notebook by using various symbols to distinguish different pronunciations. However, as I addressed in my last post, Professor Higgins does much more than describe—he prescribes language to Eliza Doolittle, much as a physician might write a prescription for an antibiotic to treat an infection. But was Eliza’s language really incorrect?

My background with linguistics sometimes feels like it conflicts with my background with editing. In linguistics, we observe change and pronunciation in various dialects and languages. We describe it using systems such as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and while we observe that some people say “tomɛto” and others “tomɑto,” most linguists do not claim one is more correct than the other. Just because a dialect may be more common in a certain area does not make it more or less correct than the less common dialects. (Ain’t that right?) Editing, on the other hand, is centered on correction. Just as news reporters may alter their accents to cater to a specific audience, editors may propose changes in manuscripts to meet certain standards for various publications.

So, who determines what is “correct”? Editors frequently rely on various style guides, usage manuals, and dictionaries to assist them in making suggested corrections for the document. However, even with these resources, “correctness” may vary depending on the country, company, audience, and type of publication. Different situations call for different rules. For instance, consider the decision on whether or not to split an infinitive. One of the most famous examples of a split infinitive is the Star Trek motto “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” If following traditional prescriptive rules, some may say the motto should be rewritten to avoid the split infinitive: “To go boldly.” In academic writing where more traditional rules are followed, such as for a master’s thesis, an author might be advised to avoid splitting the infinitive. However, if the phrase was used in a novel (or a television show like Star Trek), the grammatical rules are looser, and it wouldn’t be necessary to alter the structure of the motto.

Editors have a duty to prescribe just as linguists have a duty to describe. While the two methods of analyzing language may cause tension at times, having a greater understanding for both allows for both fields to enhance their understanding of the English language.

When Editors Strike . . .

“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.

Double Spaces After Punctuation

Some of you may have read the submission guidelines and rolled your eyes at the deletion of double spaces after punctuation. I decided to explain this further. People get really passionate about double spaces after punctuation. I made the mistake of voicing this pet peeve on Facebook and, after watching people chew each other out in the comments section (it made Hunger Games look tame), I quietly deleted the post and double-checked the locks on my door. Preferences on aesthetics aside, the reason for this schism—and the reason I impose single spacing after punctuation—comes down to the transition between typewriters and computers.

On a typewriter, every character takes up the same amount of space. If this post were pounded out on a typewriter, a capital M would take up the same amount of space as a period. This frequently made it difficult to read due to the out-of-wack spacing, so people would use two spaces after punctuation for clarity. However, when the document would be typeset for publication, the pieces of type used took up different amounts of space: a capital M was much larger than a period, and spacing did not cause problems with readability. So, regardless of what the author of the document typed out, the typesetter would use single spaces instead of double spaces after punctuation.

Enter the age of computers. You may notice on the screen how snug all the letters are, fitting perfectly against each other. The kerning, or space between the letters, is automatically adjusted. The computer essentially does the job of a typesetter by adjusting space, making double spaces after punctuation unnecessary. Frequently, people are still taught to use double spaces after punctuation because that is what their teachers or parents taught—teachers and parents who learned how to type on a typewriter.

Currently, all updated manuals of style require single spacing after punctuation. However, if your professor, boss, or significant other insists on treating a computer like a typewriter and requires double spaces, go ahead and adhere to their guidelines—even if you know they’re wrong!