Last week was a very exciting event for editors in Canada (and around the world)--the 2015 EAC International Conference, "Editing Goes Global," was held in Toronto. Organized and hosted by the Editors' Association of Canada, this was the first-ever global conference of editors, and obviously TEC staff jumped at the chance to attend! There were so many great seminars, it was hard to choose which to sit in on, let alone write about. So we've decided to write about a seminar or talk that each of us found inspiring.
Conflict over Grammar Rules
For me, it was the opening keynote address by Carol Fisher Saller (a.k.a. the Subversive Copy Editor). Her speech, entitled “What Bugs Copy Editors,” had three parts, but the section that resonated the most with me focused on “conflict over conflicting rules.”
In essence, Saller explained, “when rules conflict, you probably have to break a rule—and it’s okay.” Now, most copy editors would hear that and think, “Break a rule? No way!” However, this is exactly what Saller was trying to get at. She explained that the rules exist to serve us, not the other way around.
As she pointed out, “language is wonderfully messy,” and while many rules exist to help us maintain consistency in a piece of writing, they are arbitrary, and when adhering to these arbitrary rules begins to hinder the conveying of meaning, they must be discarded. When we take a piece of writing and “grind it through the style guide mill,” we can’t do so without thinking of whether or not the readers and the audience are being served.
Editors: Hey, It’s Okay to Break a Rule
Once we accept that it can be okay to break the rules, we should realize that we can’t just break a rule because we feel like it. We have to know the meaning behind the rule in order to defend breaking it. If the style guide you’re using doesn’t adhere to the Oxford (or series) comma, what happens when you come across a sentence that might be misunderstood without it? You could leave the comma out and maintain consistency, but would doing so serve the reader?
Saller‘s keynote reminds us that we should be more concerned with helping the reader than with the technicalities, which is why we do the work we do.
So, hey! It is okay to break a rule when doing so leads to clearer writing.
For a review of The Subversive Copy Editor by TEC editor Barbara, click here.
And if you're a writer struggling to self-edit your work, check out our resource centre for free downloadable guides!
“The point is, your style guide-or any given "rule" you learned in school-was created so you would do something the same way every time for the sake of consistency, for the reader's sake. It's less distracting that way. You learn style rules so you don't have to stop and ponder every time you, say, come to a number in the text: 'Hmm. Here's a number. Shall I spell it out? Use numerals?' You know your chosen style by heart, so you just fly by with confidence. Style rules aren't used because they're 'correct.' They're used for your convenience in serving the reader.”
― Carol Fisher Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago