Proofreading, Pedantry and Prescriptivism

Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism

When I started my BA course in Linguistics at the University of York, one of the first concepts I learned about was the difference between linguistic prescription (prescriptivism) and descriptive linguistics (descriptivism). Prescriptivists support the idea that there are certain forms of a language which are ‘correct’ and that other usages are inferior. As the name suggests, descriptivists instead seek to describe language as it is actually used. While linguistics may once have been concerned with enforcing rules and promoting a standard language, since the 20th century the focus has been much more on objectively analysing the nature of language and its usage by different communities. In short, linguists aim to describe what language is, rather than assert what language should be.

Owing to this attitude shift, those who strongly adhere to prescriptivism are now often seen as pedants or sticklers. They, in turn, may accuse descriptivists of not believing in rules at all.  In reality, people can fall anywhere along this spectrum with few taking the most extreme views.

The Role of Publishing

Traditionally, publishing – and in particular editing – is more associated with the prescriptive approach. What is a style guide, after all, but a set of standards to be followed? Some people may imagine a proofreader to be the stereotypical stickler for rules, ruthlessly correcting every split infinitive and condemning sentences which end in a preposition.

I don’t care if he is made to go quickly, or to quickly go – but go he must!
— George Bernard Shaw, after an editor tinkered with his infinitives.

In fact, the truth is a little more complicated. Of course, one of the roles of a proofreader is to provide the final quality check for a piece of writing, correcting spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors. However, far from tweaking every little detail and covering a proof in red pen, a good proofreader is much more practical and considerate, using their judgement and experience to decide when to intervene. Knowing when to leave well enough alone is just as important as understanding grammatical conventions and changes should be made only if it is necessary to aid the understanding of the reader.

It is also important to be sensitive to different styles, dialects and regional variations. When it comes to proofreading, consistency is key. As long as a stylistic choice is consistent and does not hinder the reader’s understanding, it should be retained.

My Approach

When I proofread, I try to stay in this middle ground between prescriptivism and descriptivism. While rules and conventions are important, linguistic innovation and creativity are what bring writing to life and it is important to respect both. If we are able to identify and implement those rules which ensure written language is as clear and consistent as possible, while not being constrained by them, remaining open to language’s inevitable variation and evolution, we will have done our jobs well.