Confessions of a Copy Editor

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting and thoughtful article by Prof. Anne Curzan about her discovery that one of the supposed rules she had been enforcing for years as a copy editor was in fact not a recognized rule at all:

I have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.

For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these years that this is one of those points of usage that irks style guide writers and other copy editors. Therefore, as a responsible copy editor, I must enforce the pairing of on the one hand and on the other hand so that authors’ prose will not be judged as being stylistically maladroit — and so that the journal, for example, will not be seen as having lax editorial standards.

Here’s the conclusion:

To all the authors whose prose I changed, I apologize for ridding your prose of all those on the other hand’s that were effectively doing their rhetorical job, often much better than in contrast can. And to any readers who have also been enforcing what turns out to be a fairly mythical prescriptive rule, or who have been subject to the enforcement of the rule, I hope this post will give you a new critical perspective on that practice (a practice that the lexicographer Bryan Garner, it turns out, calls “pure pedantry”). I have long known that the “rule” about not starting a sentence with And (as I did in the last sentence) is a myth perpetuated by English teachers; I had not realized that I, despite my extensive research on the history of prescriptivism, had fallen into enforcing another “rule” that had little basis in style guides or in actual usage.

Thanks to Prof. Geoffrey Pullum (Language Log) for the pointer.