An American Editor

August 20, 2012

The Business of Editing: Language Pet Peeves

I don’t know many editors who are so laid back that they don’t have a pet peeve or two when it comes to language usage. Perhaps that is the sign of an editorial bent. I know I certainly have pet peeves (note: these are American English oriented and I am aware that different rules and perspectives apply outside American English usage). A couple of my peeves revolve around who/that and whether a corporation or company is singular/plural and an it/they.

I guess of all my pet peeves, the most aggravating one is the misuse of who and that. When I read a book and see a sentence like “Shirley was a sorceress that possessed a magic wand,” I just know that whoever edited the book (assuming anyone did) wasn’t a professional editor — or maybe it was a professional editor as I occasionally have seen the misuse in professionally edited manuscripts. What bothers me is that I see this error in manuscripts from people of all educational levels and walks of life. This isn’t something that is restricted to free indie novels.

Who is a nominative pronoun; it refers, in nongrammar parlance, to humans. It is used as the subject of a verb (“It was Felicity who scored highest in the exam”) and as a predicate nominative (“Beware the folk who know where you live”). The point is, that in its simplest application, who refers to humans and, sometimes, to their humanoid substitutes. How difficult is that!

That is a reference to an object, to something inanimate, something that has no human qualities — yes, like a corporation (regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court’s assertion that corporations are persons), or perhaps a demon (but give a demon some human qualities and who might be more appropriate).

The point is that use of who and that is generally not difficult. It is simply a matter of not writing as informally as one speaks. Because it is assumed that language users recognize when to use who, the usage guides focus on the difference between who and whom, not who and that. Unfortunately, it appears that too little attention is being paid by schools to language fundamentals, because the misuse of who and that seems to be increasing, but then so are other misuses and abuses of language.

A similar problem occurs when addressing a corporation. Many authors speak of a single corporation as if it were multiple corporations (corporations here is universally used to represent businesses and other inanimate [nonhuman] objects) and so choose to use the plural form of verbs and adjectives. In American English, one is still one, so a single corporation still requires a singular verb and adjective. Yet, you can pick up many books — fiction and nonfiction, academic and nonacademic — and find that the author and editor have adopted a non-American perspective and interpreted the singular corporation as plural.

Whether it is singular or plural matters because it sets the stage for the grammar of the rest of the sentence and the following sentences in the same paragraph. For example, singular requires this and was; plural requires these and were. Yet it is not unusual to read a sentence whose subject is a corporation in which there is a mismatch between plural and singular.

More problematic to me, however, is how many authors and editors treat the inanimate corporation as if it were human. They, she, and other human-nuanced words are used when speaking of a single corporation. Yet a singular inanimate subject requires it as the personal pronoun, not they or she, when speaking of the singular subject. (The plural subject, e.g., “these corporations,” can use they and other plurals.) Questions: When and how did an inanimate object gain gender? Why is the language used to refer to a corporation often feminine (why not masculine?)?

It is true that these types of errors do not cause the average reader to stop and wonder what the author means. Such errors are so commonplace that most readers ignore them and probably do not even recognize that they are errors. The real question is whether authors and editors have any responsibility to correctly use words and thus subtly educate readers as regards proper language usage.

I think authors and editors do have such a responsibility, especially the person who proclaims himself or herself to be a professional editor. When we reinforce poor communication and language skills, we help to speed the decline of our society. Imagine a future world where “u r gr8” is the standard written communication. How pleasing would you find reading a 300-page book that is replete with twit sentences?

The proper use of language is something that an author should be cognizant of because it can help in locating a professional editor. But an author who doesn’t understand, for example, the difference between who and that (or between which and that), won’t recognize whether an editor is a professional or an amateur, and thus won’t get the best return for his or her money.

Again, I need to emphasize that an error-free book is almost impossible to create. Perfection is an elusive goal. But there are certain fundamentals that can and should be expected from a professional editor, two of which are knowing when to use who or that and when to use it rather than she. It just isn’t that difficult!

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