Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca has a spot-on blog post about the descriptive-prescriptive debate. Her post is pegged to a Wall Street Journal essay headlined “There Is No ‘Proper’ English.” Curzan, an English professor and a linguist, explains that the usage beliefs that some label “superstitions” could be called “conventions.” She writes about the value of conventional, standard English.
As a copy editor, I hew to those conventions but avoid the discredited “rules.” For example, I would never edit a sentence to avoid a so-called split infinitive, and I know that writers are perfectly free to begin sentences with “and” or “but.” I do, however, edit to avoid an unintentional double negative or a dangling modifier. My goal is not to blindly obey rules, but to make published writing clearer and more readable. I am also trying to avoid distracting a reader from the writer’s point. A double negative in informational pieces, such as the ones I edit for a living, would be a distraction.
If thoughtful copy editors ever need an expert opinion to support their efforts to improve writing, they could turn to Professor Curzan’s essay.
By the way, Lingua Franca is worth checking regularly for language and writing advice.
I wrote earlier about the tone of the descriptive-prescriptive debate, too.