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  • Editing, prescriptivism, and free speech
  • Brian D. Joseph

All my life as a linguist, I have been a rabid descriptivist and have actively inveighed against prescriptivism when I have taught students in introductory classes or have had the opportunity to speak in similar forums (or is it fora?).1 Inextricably linked to this is my longtime intense belief in the importance of free speech, the right of people to express themselves freely and without fetters from governmental action.

While descriptivism and free speech strike me as entirely compatible and interrelated notions, being an editor is increasingly striking me as being consistent with neither. As an editor, I see myself playing a highly prescriptive role and in some cases encroaching on an author’s free exercise of expression. This is not necessarily bad, as writing involves making choices for the sake of effective communication, rhetorical effect, even euphony on occasion, and editors inevitably have to do some rewriting of text that they accept for publication.2 In many instances, such rewriting is clearly beneficial, as when meaning obscured by turgid prose gushes forth as if liberated from a rewritten sentence,3 and it can also be relatively benign, as when one corrects misspellings4 or clarifies terminological misuses, or even alters the use and/or placement of commas.5

In many cases, moreover, descriptivism can rule, and usage can overturn prescriptivism. Using prepositions to end sentences with, for instance, has become a relatively common practice in most types of written English, including (some) academic prose.6 Sometimes, even, preposing (pied piping) the preposition sounds downright clumsy and awkward (cf.7 Dr. Bagoze wrote a book against the publication of which our [End Page 1] committee now stands united vs. Dr. Bagoze wrote a book which our committee now stands united against the publication of), thus violating another tenet of good writing that editors aspire to (even if authors don’t always): clarity. When constraints clash, clarity must surely rank as the most highly valued. And at any rate, sometimes the preposition must be stranded, unless there is DRASTIC rewriting, as in Linguists are always easy to listen to vs. *Linguists are always easy with whom to listen or *Linguists are always easy to listen to them; or in This article has been tampered with vs. *With this article (it) has been tampered.

Editors who engage in such practices do so for all sorts of reasons, not just with prescriptivist motivations. Whatever the basis, editors can go too far in their rewriting zeal, sometimes to the detriment of the author or even the truth. In E. Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel The Shipping News, the main character, Quoyle, who writes a column on shipping news for a small Newfoundland newspaper, has his entire opinion column on potential problems with old oil tankers (e.g. oil spills) rewritten by his editor into a brief statement extolling the virtues of tankers and the oil industry for Newfoundland. The rewriting here was politically motivated, since the editor favored the development of the oil industry for the economic well-being of the area, yet the editor justified his changes by saying, in authoritarian fashion, ‘As long as I’m managing editor . . . I’ve the right to change anything I don’t think fit to run in [the paper]’.

This example of editorial reworking is fictitious; however, unfortunate outcomes from editorial intervention are not restricted just to fiction. Two somewhat amusing examples from my own writing career, such as it has been, drive this point home. In a small piece I submitted to a journal in 1986, I had occasion to refer to the (South Pacific) island Bikini, but left the details of its whereabouts unspecified as immaterial to my point. The editor, bless his soul, rewrote my piece to make it far more interesting and compellingly written, condensing a bloated page and a half to a single crisp paragraph, and I had no objection (though I confess I found the extent of the rewriting rather startling). The editor saw fit, however, to add more information on the location of Bikini, giving it as ‘Polynesian’. As many readers of Language no doubt know, this is erroneous, as...


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