English as We Have Loved It

September 16, 2019

By Marilyn Schwartz, guest blogger and co-author of the new Copyeditor’s Handbook and Copyeditor’s Workbook


Editor’s note: You can meet Marilyn at the Red Pencil Conference on September 21. She would be delighted if fellow conference attendees take the initiative to introduce themselves and even ask her a copyediting question or two. Join us in welcoming Marilyn to the Northwest, won’t you?


When Amy Einsohn’s classic Copyeditor’s Handbook was first published in 2000, at least 50 percent of copyeditors in the book industry (a sector of publishing rarely ahead of the technology curve) were still marking paper manuscripts with No. 2 pencils, according to panelists at a conference for on-screen editing held in San Francisco that year. Many deft amateurs still learned their craft, as Amy and I had, by apprenticing to a battle-tested in-house editor or by following hand-marked foul copy while proofreading typeset galleys. Publishers, the traditional gatekeepers of content, still typically anointed lucky authors for fifteen minutes of fame, although spurned writers sometimes resorted to the widely disparaged practice of “vanity publishing” by digging into their own pockets. Some of us editors even had “real jobs”—the kind with regular paychecks and benefits. (Secure in my niche as managing editor at the University of California Press, I was among the fortunate ones.)

The culture and practice of editing have profoundly changed since then.

With major disruptions to the publishing industry over the past twenty years, especially the elimination of thousands of staff editorial jobs, more editors now work as independent contractors. The old apprentice system for training novices has nearly disappeared. Freelancers typically acquire and update their skills through formal academic programs and the education offered by their professional associations. For their daily work they rely on the advice of colleagues in their online editorial communities rather than on the guidance of a senior editor peering over their shoulder. And that “hive mind” buzzes with business talk: sole proprietorships, LLCs, and incorporation; editorial labor contractors and online scams; small-business and self-employment taxes; rates, billing, and collections; negotiations and client relations; health care and retirement plans; marketing, marketing, and, of course, marketing.

Meanwhile, new technologies and publication outlets enable writers from every social stratum to bypass traditional publishers and seek an audience directly. The growing number of “indie” writers claiming public space has democratized authorship and removed the stigma of self-publishing. Freelance editors now assist many such nontraditional clients, offering an expanded menu of services once provided by conventional publishers, including fact-checking, art editing, permissions research, project management, formatting and design, proofreading, indexing, printing and e-book distribution, and even marketing and order fulfillment.

New editorial specialties and freelance opportunities have also emerged since the clock turned on our new century.

The US Plain Language Movement, a post–World War II effort to reform government and corporate gobbledygook, received a boost with the Obama administration’s federal Plain Language Act of 2010. Now government and business organizations hire editors to simplify documents addressed to the general public. The Plain Language goal: writing that is intelligible to all, including those with limited education, literacy, or English proficiency, after a single reading.

The globalization of commerce and science, much of which is conducted in English, means that editors’ clients now come from all four corners of the world. (According to some estimates, English is the most widely spoken language globally and the third-ranking native language, after Mandarin and Spanish.) Many corporate authors seek help in preparing text for foreign-language readers of English—or for translation software. International scientists writing in English as a second or foreign language often solicit native-English editors to vet their text before submission to a major peer-reviewed English language science journal.

Once, professional editors merely had to sharpen their pencils and assemble their reference books before beginning a job. Today, few younger editors are adept at hand-marking and marginal queries. But given the constantly changing technology environment, even those born in the same year as Word 97 must regularly update their hardware, software, and technical skills. On-screen editing in Microsoft Word, currently the standard tool for many editorial jobs, creates the expectation that editors will be proficient in scrubbing and formatting files for new forms of output, coding or styling complex elements, correctly keying non-Latin alphabets and unusual characters, troubleshooting technical difficulties (“Word happens”), and even providing support to technology-impaired authors. And editors must sometimes adapt to more cumbersome software, such as Adobe Acrobat or Google Docs, at their clients’ insistence.

I have observed these transformations in the publishing industry and in editorial work for more than twenty years. But when I undertook revisions to Amy Einsohn’s classic handbook for editors, I was surprised to discover significant changes in grammar and usage as well. To be sure, I had long since discarded some spurious rules inherited from my early mentors: prohibitions against beginning a sentence with and, but, or, also, or however; ending a sentence with a preposition; splitting an infinitive; or using which to refer to an entire preceding clause. In my research for the revised Handbook, I expected to confirm rumors that the subjunctive mood and some pronoun case distinctions (who, whom) were fast fading in all but the most formal prose. And I anticipated (with joy) the increased acceptance of singular they.

The new edition of The Copyeditor’s Handbook and accompanying Workbook. Photo courtesy of University of California Press.

But color me dismayed to learn that some fine old distinctions between common confusables—what H. W. Fowler once termed “pairs and snares”—had also blurred. With hardly a demur, the eleventh edition of Webster’s Collegiate (the free online authority generally recommended for book editors) now conflates the meanings of bemuse and amuse; continuous and continual; disinterested and uninterested; enormity and immensity; fortuitous and fortunate; fulsome and full—distinctions hard-wired in my editorial brain. And to beg the question, denoting a specific logical fallacy, is now widely accepted as also meaning “to prompt the question”!

When Amy Einsohn first published The Copyeditor’s Handbook nearly twenty years ago, some reviewers thought her “too liberal” in matters of grammar and usage. The profession soon vindicated her tolerance for a broad range of legitimate choices, from formal and conservative to colloquial, dialectical, and innovative. But eventually even Amy had to confront what she called her “inner Miss Thistlebottom” when an editing student pointed out to her that Webster’s lists to hone in on as a variant of to home in on—granted, with a cautionary usage note. Besides continually updating their tools and reference works, she concluded, editors must continuously study the changes (however unwelcome) in our language and seek a balance between pedantry and permissiveness in their work.

As a writer I usually follow the conventions learned in my years of parochial school and graduate education. As a reader I prefer the precision of so-called Standard Written English. But as an editor I respect the legitimacy of a rapidly spreading informal register, where a coinage or grammatical innovation may be introduced into the linguistic gene pool by social media, propagating overnight and dying out again—or not. To wit: on fleek (Wiktionary, “awesome”) and gig economy (Webster’s Collegiate, needs no explanation) were both recorded in 2009. Grammar-wise (here could some young person please insert whatever humorous emoji is appropriate for this deliberate solecism?), we are entering a brave new world—according to Emmy Favilla’s 2017 book on BuzzFeed style, A World without “Whom.” I don’t think the English language has undergone such profound change since the Norman invasion.

As always, editors’ decisions require judgment about appropriate choices for a given readership and register, combined with sensitivity to language in all its forms—including our new digital vernacular. But there is no reason to proclaim the demise of English as we have loved it. The internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch, in Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (2019), argues that new media are in fact enhancing the expressiveness and creativity of our language. We needed froyo (Webster’s Collegiate, 2019, “frozen yogurt”). Because *yum*. And I can’t wait to deploy that snarky author query: “TL;DR.”


The seventh biennial Red Pencil Conference is on Saturday, September 21, 2019, on the campus of Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, northeast of Seattle. Register online now at www.edsguild.org. All registration closes at midnight September 17.We frequently post conference updates on the Guild’s websiteFacebook pageLinkedIn page, or Twitter feed. Use the hashtag #EdsGuild 2019 and join the conversation!

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Marilyn Schwartz
Marilyn Schwartz

After earning a PhD in English in 1976, Marilyn Schwartz joined the staff of the University of California Press. She became managing editor in 1983 and held that position for twenty-eight years. From 1979 through 2004 she also taught editorial workshops for UC Berkeley Extension. She was the acquiring editor and production editor for the original Copyeditor’s Handbook, written by her colleague Amy Einsohn (1952–2014), and she has now prepared a substantially revised and updated fourth edition of this classic reference, as well as a new companion volume, The Copyeditor’s Workbook, written with co-author Erika Bűky. You can find her online on LinkedIn.

Photo by Genevieve Shiffrar.