Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


June 18, 2016

Editors Canada Conference 2016: Bill Walsh’s keynote speech

“You’re the editor,” said Bill Walsh during his keynote speech. His message was that although yes, language change happens, and yes, we’ll move with the times, we’re the editors, and our job is to choose the style option that’s appropriate for the publication and its readers. When Bill saw his first copy of The Associated Press Stylebook, he was delighted (“All that correctness!”). Same when he first read Strunk and White (“Omit needless words!”), but as time passed, he took a more nuanced view. What if omitting needless words makes the text really hard to read?

A descriptivist editor seems like a contradition in terms: What are they going to do? look at the copy and say, “Yep, that’s what the author wrote”? But he points out that there’s a difference between throwing eggs at your neighbour’s house because they use “impact” as a verb, and getting paid by your neighbour to edit their writing and leaving “impact” in place. You’re the editor. But extreme prescriptivism doesn’t make sense either. If you’re going to try to freeze language at a certain stage, which decade are you going to choose as the one time when English was correct? Bill suggests that style guides should lag a little behind the general trend: seeing e-mail with the hyphen today may look a little old-fashioned, but it doesn’t disturb a reader as much as email did in the late nineties.

Although obviously language is changing, Bill is skeptical about the supposed trend toward lowercasing and the trend to closing hyphenated compounds. In fact, he says, there seems to be a law of conservation of hyphens. The same people who close generally hyphenated compounds lever apart words that have been closed together for a hundred years.

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