What Counts as Correct English?

The Conspiracy

Editors get a bad rap. When I meet someone new and mention that I’m an editor, I’m likely to get a suspicious look, as though I’m part of a conspiracy to make English too difficult to leave to amateurs. I’ll hear comments about undecipherable, rigid rules, followed by a stream of excuses or complaints (or a mixture thereof).

Few of the rules contained in this book are inviolable. — The Chicago Manual of Style

Of course, there exist bureaucratic editors, on a mission to ensure that no one who breaks a rule be allowed to live in peace. Most of us, though, subscribe to a different ethic. We are here to make writing clearer, and we use the rules to serve that end.

Toward Consistency and Clarity

Rules

The rules of English were not written by a committee. They developed naturally, and they are complex. A style manual, such as the The Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, or even The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, is simply a book in which someone, or some group, has tried to collect those rules for reference. I think of it more as an encyclopedia or a dictionary than as a list of commandments. It is descriptive, rather than prescriptive.

Describing English Usage

The manual’s usefulness, then, is in describing how English is typically used. It is not a law-book, but rather a guide. Only when something is awkward or unclear to we resort to checking the rules.

But did I really say “how English is typically used”? I did, but I don’t mean the way it is used at your local mall. I mean the way it is used by the whole community of English speakers, from New York to Idaho, to Australia, England, and South Africa. From philosophers, both dead and alive, to rappers, and the people at your local mall.

To be understood by all literate English speakers (with an adequate vocabulary) is the writer’s goal, and the editor helps to reach that goal. Correct English is the English that makes that possible.

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