Radical Copyediting: Because Language Transforms Reality

A few months back, I shared on my Facebook wall a fabulous short video from The Guardian in which Mona Chalabi explains why “grammar snobs are patronising, pretentious, and just plain wrong.” In my post, I enthusiastically proclaimed: “Radical copyeditors unite against grammar snobbery!”

Now, I share a lot of stuff on social media that some people might consider challenging. After all, I’m an activist whose passion is helping folks connect the dots between oppression and privilege based in race, class, sexuality, ability, gender, and more. Yet it is invariably my posts about grammar that incite the most heated reactions on my Facebook wall—so heated that I have to warn friends to watch their mouths.

On this occasion, I was flabbergasted when friends and acquaintances started insulting each other and raging over the idea that using less and fewer interchangeably might not be the worst possible offense.

Before you get it twisted, let me be clear: I would never argue that grammar doesn’t matter or that we should throw out all language rules and conventions entirely. Quite the contrary. I will go to my grave ready to launch into a passionate defense of the serial comma at a moment’s notice. Why will I throw down for some grammar conventions and not others? Because I’m a radical copyeditor.

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The truth is, I love grammar and other language conventions—I love the aesthetics of a beautifully consistent work of writing, and I love rules that help more people understand what an author or speaker is expressing. I love the subtle yet meaningful differences between hyphen, en dash, and em dash. I love a well-placed semi-colon. I love clean and comprehensive reference citations. I am a super nerd when it comes to this stuff.

But more than anything, I love standards that help language express the world I’m working to manifest. Although I have lots of feelings about grammar and I couldn’t agree more with Melissa A. Fabello that grammar snobbery has no place in the movement, I don’t see my role as a radical copyeditor as being about tearing down grammar rules; instead, I strive to use existing conventions for good.

The thing is, style guides, grammar standards, and dictionaries give the illusion that language is a science, or a recipe for baked goods—that there is a single correct way to communicate, and if one just follows all the rules, one can speak or write perfectly. But in actuality, language is an art. Radical copyediting recognizes that there is no one ultimately correct way of communicating; instead, language depends entirely on context.

For example, if the Scholastic editions of the Harry Potter series hadn’t been edited with an understanding of the differences between British and U.S. English, it would have led to a lack of comprehension when U.S. readers encountered terms like “a packet of crisps,” “trainers,” or “pop my clogs.” Similarly, depending on where you are in the United States, the same carbonated beverage (say, Sprite, for example) could be called a pop, a soda, or a coke. Context is vitally important.

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I operate from a belief that at its best, language strives to help people communicate across differences and express the incredible diversity of human experience—whereas, at its worst, language spreads violence and hate, divides people from each other, and actively inflicts suffering and pain.

Similarly, at their best (and most radical), language rules and standards—as laid out in dictionaries, style guides, grammar books, and so forth—exist in order to increase comprehension and help the widest possible swath of humanity communicate effectively and access the meaning behind the words each person uses. At their worst (and most snobbish), such language conventions exist in order to create and maintain oppressive hierarchies—for example, serving to separate out people who are educated or “well bred” (and thus speak “proper” English) from those who are not.

Language is coded with culture every bit as much as cells are coded with DNA. Feminist writer Rita Mae Brown said, “Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.” Feminist linguist Julia Penelope wrote that “language is power, in ways more literal than most people think. When we speak, we exercise the power of language to transform reality.”

Through language we transform reality. We dictate what is real. To me, this creates an enormous responsibility to use language to describe and create the best, most radical reality we can imagine—a world free from violence in all its forms; a world where all life, all identities and experiences, and all ways of making meaning are understood as valuable and sacred.

Language can hurt or heal; it can cause harm or create liberation—the choice is ours.

the choice is ours quote square

As a radical copyeditor, not only do I help authors and speakers use language in ways that are free from errors and consistent in terms of style, grammar, and spelling, I also help them align their words with their values.

My editing takes context into account—not only the author’s context, but also the content of the author’s work. For example, in a piece about queer and trans homeless youth, I might recommend the author use the term Latinx instead of Latino/a—whereas in a report on a research study of racial minorities in the U.S. southwest, I would recommend the authors specify the language that different groups in their study use for themselves, such as Indigenous, Chicano/a, Guatemalan, and Anglo.

My editing uses language conventions for good. For example, the word diverse is defined by pretty much every dictionary as varied, or composed of many elements that differ from one another; however, it often gets used to mean “different”—that is, different from the norm. So when I encounter an author using the word diverse as a euphemism for different, I offer a correction or ask for clarification.

My editing embraces the fact that there is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to language and works of writing. Every single one of us who uses language brings our own perspective, experience, and understandings of the world to what we say or write. My gift is helping people make sure that what they bring forward authentically represents their truths and visions and doesn’t do so at the expense of anyone else.

That’s what makes me a radical copyeditor.

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