Just a little guidance: 10 years of blogging about grammar, usage, and copy editing

“But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.
Oh, lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
—Nina Simone*

Facebook friends sometimes share with me memes that refer to “Grammar Police” or “Grammar Nazis.” I never take offense at such posts. But the truth is that I hope I don’t come off as anything that could be construed as a Nazi (let’s use that term only for actual Nazis) or even as a police officer.

The tone on both sides of the prescriptive-descriptive debate bothers me quite a bit. Even if some folks cling to “rules” that are myths (split infinitives, sentences ending in prepositions), we needn’t be nasty or dismissive (even if we think the beliefs those people hold are baseless peeves). I say we practice the Precious Metal Rule of Facebook in all casual matters: When someone posts a silly meme that you think is vacuous and possibly even erroneous, just scroll on past (or hide it if it really gets under your skin) and don’t respond unless you’re asked directly to express an opinion. If you do respond in writing, be respectful of the people, even as you rebut their views. And those who hold those beliefs instilled long ago in a classroom or on a copy desk should take the opportunity to question whether a reasoned argument based on linguistic evidence might be valid. Don’t be rude, and don’t be priggish. We would all do well to remember that language changes and standards evolve. I learn a great deal from reading what linguists and lexicographers write about English.

I intentionally chose “guide” for this blog’s name when I started it 10 years ago (April 2005) for two reasons: First, “guide” was a title that we used at my then-employer for informative sections that could be kept and referred to often, and second, I wanted the blog to be a friendly guide, not a scolding screed about sins against syntax. My motivation was to help, not to rebuke.

Once the blog moved to the ACES site, I wanted my focus to be on helping copy editors and others who work with words. I kept the name “Grammar Guide” because I fancied that my “brand” but also because I still want to present myself as a friendly guide whose purpose is to accompany readers as they try to learn more about how American English is used in edited writing, not to berate or to put anyone down.

I have grown less prescriptive over the years, but I still believe that supplying professional word herders with information and practice in standard usage will help. My Grammar Guide quizzes are part of that. We who edit can benefit from knowing those words and usages that are commonly recognized as incorrect or nonstandard, even if such “misusage” is merely poor typing and not ignorance—and even if the standard usage is changing. Those who write about editing must acknowledge that clarity trumps all, and sometimes clarity means letting some formerly disdained usage go as is.

I do still practice in my editing some of the rules that linguists and others have debunked. For example, the publications that I copy-edit for a living do not use the epicene or singular “they.” We have that expressly spelled out in our style guide, and that is what it is: a style that we have chosen. I happen to like using “he or she” or “it,” as appropriate, but if tomorrow my bosses decided that the singular “they” was fine in certain instances, then I would go along with that new style (just as I learned to embrace the serial comma). That’s my job as a copy editor.

I hope my purpose in this blog and my other professional communications is clear and not being misunderstood. I am a bit of a schoolmarm by training and by natural tendency, but I publish my quizzes only as tools for practice. Being able to spot nonstandard usage is a good skill for everyone who writes and especially for those who edit. The Grammar Guide quizzes carry a disclaimer these days that they are mostly just for fun, too, and that is also something that I am striving for. Last year at the ACES national conference in Las Vegas, I presented a quiz show format session that followed the same guiding principle—editors having fun! I hope to do that again sometime; I learned a lot from that session, and I have a new set of game show buzzers.

My model for this blog and for any training sessions that I lead is a smiling volunteer docent at a museum, leading with knowledge, experience, good humor, and humility.

* The Animals with the great Eric Burdon had a hit with that song, of course, but I like my fellow native North Carolinian’s version. [Link updated April 5, 2017]