What I do and why

Growing up in a minuscule town in eastern Kentucky, I was a good student, a teacher’s pet, and a bookworm.

Being a good student meant always having the right answer, and in English class, where I excelled, the right answer was always formal written English. I absorbed the dangerous belief that formal written English is “correct” English, all other forms being inferior at best, or downright wrong.

Consequently, I came to talk like a book and developed into a terrible language snob during adolescence and early adulthood, the worst kind of prescriptivist. It took some time for me to discover — through wide reading, through acquaintance with other editors in ACES: The Society for Editing, and through blogging exchanges with linguists and lexicographers — that language snobbery is no more noble, moral, or excusable than snobbery based on ancestry, place of birth, IQ score, wealth, physical beauty, or wardrobe.

This means I have had to revise, or even reverse, what I have told students in my editing class at Loyola University Maryland, but unlearning is an inescapable part of learning.

Over nearly forty years as an editor at newspapers, first The Cincinnati Enquirer and currently The Baltimore Sun, I have come to understand that my task is not to enforce a handful of superstitions and shibboleths, but to assist the writer in accomplishing their purpose. (Yes, singular their. Get over it.)

Accomplishing that purpose means making judgments rather than enforcing rules or rigidly adhering to a house style. The judgments involve balancing a set of interests: what is appropriate for the writer, appropriate for the subject, appropriate for the occasion, appropriate for the publication — and appropriate for the reader, the party most commonly overlooked.

That’s the job.