Often, as an editor, I’m asked about what’s right. People assume that there are rules, after all, language can’t be completely random can it?
Well, very often there is no right answer. It depends!
Sure, there are certain conventions in the English language that readers expect. Deviate too much from these and you will cause a distraction, but sometimes the author’s voice demands a slight variance to convention.
And this is why the answer to so many questions that come my way are “it depends”. And then it is very often the context.
Let’s consider context briefly. I find it best to do this by using questions:
- Who is the intended audience?
- What is the purpose of the text?
- Why is it being written? Why is being read?
- Where will the text appear?
An understanding of who is to read the text and where it will be read is vital to any editing or proofreading. As is the reason why the text is being written in the first place. Reading for pleasure or reading for technical knowledge are very different and so demand very different approaches to language and how we apply rules. Having a clear understanding of the context alters how we might use language.
I’ve used the example before but it’s worth reiterating here. Sally Rooney’s Normal People did not contain quotation, or speech, marks. Does that make it wrong? No! Which brings me to the second point to consider after context: is the meaning clear?
Context decides certain things but at the forefront of every editor’s mind is clarity. Is the author’s message clear? If not, why not, and how can we use language to make it clearer? Does it matter if you’ve not used a single quotation mark (as Sally Rooney did) but it’s clear that it’s dialogue? No, it doesn’t matter.
Another common example is the who vs whom debate. There are conventions to be followed here but, slowly, the word whom is falling out of fashion. So, in answer to the question “should I use who or whom?”, my answer, of course, would be “it depends”.
Let’s take context first. It’s a short novella, one character speaking to another. It’s a young character from a working-class background. The novel is aimed at reluctant readers and is designed to be as accessible as possible. Does the technically correct but off-putting use of whom instead of who add anything to the text? Is the meaning just as clear? Yes. The stick with the simpler option.
Another frequently asked question concerns acronyms. Should I spell them out? When? Again it depends!
Is your reader familiar with the term? Are they all going to understand the term straight away or send some of them scurrying for dictionaries and other reference books?
For example, I recently proofread a book on aviation history. It was to be read by aviation enthusiasts as well as specialists. The term ILS might mean something to those with a pilot’s licence, but might leave the non-specialist reader scratching their head. In that case, add in the full definition, Instrument Landing System. If it was a textbook on flying, aimed at experienced commercial pilots, I don’t think (I hope so anyway!) you’d need to spell it out.
There are, literally, hundreds of it depends examples. Recently, I blogged about using italics. Full of it depends answers. Certain words need capitals sometimes; sometimes that same word doesn’t need a capital because it depends (God or god springs to mind!).
Just because it depends doesn’t mean that I will try and find the very best solution to your query. If you have a question you’d like answering, bearing in mind it might depend, do feel free to get in touch!
And if you’d like me to take a look at longer piece of writing, remember I offer free sample edits and would be delighted to show you what I can offer.
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