An American Editor

March 25, 2013

The Elusive Editorial Higgs Boson

Physicists believe that they have discovered the subatomic particle, Higgs boson or “God particle,” that will help explain what gives all matter in the universe size and shape. For us editors, that “God particle” of editing remains elusive.

As we have discussed many times, editing is much more than looking at Chicago section 8.18 and applying the “rule” that president is lowercase unless the president is named, as in “The president boasted…” versus “Boasting about his tenure, President Smith….” So, just as physicists search for the Higgs boson of life, I search for the Higgs boson of editing. What is the essence of editing that gives it life? That gives a well-edited manuscript style? That makes editing a great and learned profession? That sets editors apart from other users of the same language?

It is true that, these days, a goodly portion of an editor’s time is spent on mechanical work. There is little genius in play when we manipulate a reference to make it conform to a set style. The genius is not in fixing those references, but in helping authors communicate their intent and meaning to readers, which is done by word choice and sentence structure.

It is true that today, for example, the meanings of since and because have so blurred and merged that they are nearly synonymous. Consequently, authors and editors often don’t choose between them — each is viewed as a 100% substitute for the other. (And I also admit that there are only a handful of us editors, like me, who still insist on the difference and who are reluctant to embrace the “new” English. The dinosaurs, perhaps, of editing.)

Yet isn’t there a subtle, oh so slight, yet meaningful difference between the two words? Doesn’t since still cast off an aura of time passing? Doesn’t because still conjure up its root in causation?

I raise the since/because issue because I see it as a good representation of the subtleties of the editorial “God particle” and the difficult search for that element. Just as we have a whisper of difference in today’s meanings of since and because, so we have just a whisper of the existence of the editorial Higgs boson.

I asked a colleague whether she ever thought about the philosophical underpinnings of editing. She looked at me as if I was from another planet and said: “No, and I don’t know of any editor who has done so.” To be truthful, neither do I know any editor who has spent even a fleeting moment thinking about the philosophy of editing. Instead, we tend to focus on the job at hand; after all, thinking about philosophy (or philosophically) pays no bills.

But as the years have passed, I have been increasingly thinking about the philosophy of editing. I know what good editing does (and perhaps why I am a good editor), which is this: Good editing enhances the communication between an author and a reader, making sure that the author says precisely what the author intends to say and that the reader understands what the author says as what the author intends it to say. Diagrammatically, the editor sits between the author and reader as the “translator,” ensuring that communication flows unerringly. But that is only what makes for good editing; it doesn’t address the loftier philosophy of editing.

The philosophy of editing seeks to answer the why questions, rather than the what or how questions — the philosophy, rather than the mechanics. Why do we choose particular structures? Why do we resist the singular their? Why does English lack…? Why is “to go boldly” not the same, or as understandable, as “to boldly go”? Why is the editor’s role more like that of a librettist than a composer (and why is it that the composer gets all the credit)? Why is it that, in editing, there are only guides and not written-in-stone rules as in other learned professions?

And on and on go the questions — the questions for which there are no style guides to provide answers or to point the searcher in a search direction. But perhaps the overarching question — the question that truly embraces the philosophy of editing concept — is this: Why does editing lack a universally accepted and applied moral and ethical code of conduct, that is, one that is universally understood and accepted by all parties to the editorial transaction and to which all parties subject themselves?

Sure, there are rogue scientists and rogue soldiers and rogue priests and rogue politicians and rogue whatevers — but there are no rogue editors, because there are no ethical and moral expectations, outside the standard, run-of-the-mill, societal expectations, that are applicable to and bind the parties of an editorial transaction. And that is because there are no editors hunting for the editorial Higgs boson.

Editing should be a serious profession. Yes, I know that we editors claim we are a serious profession, but then we act otherwise. We do little to no deep thinking about our profession. (Consider this: Nearly all professions have a “think tank” — except editing. Nearly all professions have a lobbying group to promote the their ideas and goals among policy makers and the public — except editing.) Individual writers may do little deep thinking about the philosophy of writing, but that gauntlet is picked up by those whose focus is on “literary criticism” — the H.L. Menckens and George Bernard Shaws and Michel Foucaults and Harold Blooms and Noam Chomskys who are both writers and literary critics.

Literary criticism is based on the philosophical discussion of literature’s methods and goals. The editorial Higgs boson could be defined as being “the philosophical discussion of editing’s methods and goals.” Where are the editors who focus on the philosophy of editing? Where are “the philosophical discussion of editing’s methods and goals?”

As I wrote earlier, increasingly I am thinking about the philosophy of editing and I am searching for that editorial “God particle” — that wisp of truth that will change the profession of editing at its core, that will ultimately lead to the “laws” of editing. Just as physics and chemistry and language and business have their immutable laws (Murphy’s being the most commonly invoked one that crosses all professional boundaries), so does editing — they just wait to be discovered.

Think about how a pursuit of the editorial Higgs boson could reshape the conversations that editors have amongst themselves. Instead of “What does Chicago say about xyz?” the question would become, “Why does Chicago say this about xyz?” and the discussion would be less about a supposed “this is the way it must be” to more like “should this be the way it is done?”

Such discussions might eventually lead to the creation — or perhaps more accurately, the recognition — of the Ten Editorial Commandments, which might govern all parties to the editorial transaction. At that moment in time, editing will be able to take its place in the pantheon of the great professions; the editorial Higgs boson will have been found.

What do you think? More importantly, if you were asked to contribute to the creation of the Ten Editorial Commandments, what would your contribution be?


  1. A worthy question, worthy of a better answer than I have, but when I explain to prospective authors what I do for them (in a sense, philosophically), I say this: I stand between you and the reader. Like the author of this blog points out, I facilitate (and I really hate that word) the communication. I’m on both sides of the exchange.

    To you the author, I look you over and point out the schmutz on your shirt from the lunch soup and try to erase it. You didn’t even know it was there. I straighten your tie, smooth down the cowlick, and pull your pants up. You wouldn’t want to go out in public in disarray, just as you wouldn’t want to present your work in disarray.

    To you the reader, I say, I’ve done my best getting this author’s work pulled together so you can read it without unnecessary distraction. Yes, there are times those authors go out with lint on their shoulder or a piece of toilet paper stuck on a shoe, but we editors see the flaws and we know we’ve done our best. That’s my philosophy.

    Thank you for a lively post.


    Comment by Sandra Wendel — March 25, 2013 @ 10:00 am

  2. Maybe someone should start something like the Gordon Conferences in science, where small groups of people in a discipline get together to discuss things. Choose a beautiful venue with reasonably priced accommodations so editors could combine the discussions with a family vacation.

    One problem editors face is that the clients hire us to do whatever they want done. If we’re working with a journal or a publisher with strict guidelines, then we have to follow those, whether we and the author like them or not. If we’re hired by an author who says s/he just wants us to correct spelling, we either have to refuse the job or just correct the spelling even though the bulk of the writing is unclear.

    In my mind, for the scientific material I deal with, the most important factor is clarity. I don’t give a hoot if the author splits infinitives or makes the wrong choice of because/since as long as the meaning is clear. I change only if the publisher has a house style that demands that. If something could be more elegant expressed another way but time is limited, I won’t try to rewrite as long as the meaning is clear. Editing novels would be a different kettle of high-omega-3 fish.


    Comment by Gretchen — March 25, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

  3. Some early thoughts:

    Given the subtleties and ambiguities of language, and given the subjective nature of editing, I’m not sure we could or should have a code or ethics. That said, though, I see the possibility for an aesthetics of editing, which would bring editing under the theme of philosophy.

    An aesthetics of editing would consider what we do an art or craft. An aesthetics of editing would take seriously editing as an art. Also, it seems an aesthetics of editing would be a sort of philosophy of editing by definition.

    Still, I too would like to see some sort of editorial or editing code of standards to serve as a foundation for the profession. Credibility is key here.


    Comment by Desiree Dreeuws (@DDreeuws) — March 25, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  4. As always, I enjoyed today’s post. I do not find copy editing easy; rather, I find it uses all my brain cells, and then some.

    As for the Ten Commandments of Editing, I would suggest ” I will not cheat.” I will not leave a word or a phrase in a document that I know is unclear or wrong just because it is too difficult for me to find a better way, or the “correct” way, to say it. I will always ask the author a question and not presume that he thinks I am ignorant. And so forth.


    Comment by Dr. Mary-Anne Pops — March 25, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

  5. If there are few style guides that provide answers to the deeper questions of editing, that’s because it’s not normally their purview as practical references. But many books on usage address these questions quite thoroughly. Such matters are rarely far from my mind when I write about editing, though they are generally best set aside while dealing with the nuts and bolts of the profession.

    Incidentally, “since” has been used to mean “because” since Middle English, and it appears more than once in Shakespeare. It’s hardly “new” English.


    Comment by Stan — March 26, 2013 @ 7:51 am

    • Yes, since has been used to mean because for hundreds of years, but until recent decades, a distinction was made between the two in terms of sense; that is, since was used when the sense was of time passing, and because was used when causation was meant. However, that distinction is no longer being made or enforced for the most part, leaving readers to guess/infer which is meant by the author.


      Comment by americaneditor — March 26, 2013 @ 8:46 am

      • I’m not sure how you can say that “since has been used to mean because for hundreds of years” but maintain that a distinction was made between the two. Also, it’s not true that the distinction was made in the past but not in recent decades. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the rule forbidding since in the causal sense didn’t appear until about a hundred years ago. That is, it’s only in recent decades that people started insisting on a distinction between the two. And at any rate, it’s also not true that they’re completely synonymous. Because cannot be used to mean since.


        Comment by Jonathon Owen — March 26, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

  6. “Why does editing lack a universally accepted and applied moral and ethical code of conduct?” Because there is no governing organization, no body, that says “You can’t be an editor unless you accept our philosophy.” You don’t have to be licensed to be an editor, so you’re free to define what it means to be an editor. Although I’d like to see a code of conduct and some industry standards, I don’t think such standards should dictate what “good” English is, such as not using “since” for “because.”

    I’ve written frequently on the Copyediting blog and in newsletter about a set of standards (as have other editors in other pubs). My most recent missive lists 10 “commandments” we should follow:


    Comment by Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) — March 26, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

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