An American Editor

September 2, 2013

What Is Linguistics? A Rebuttal

Last week I posted an article called What is Editing? in which I advocated for a philosophy/law education, claiming it to be the best educational preparation for an editing career. As you know, other educational paths were espoused and my view of linguistics was the subject of several comments stating that I was wrong.

I invited Ben Lukoff to write a rebuttal. After all, I am not so wedded to my views that I cannot be taught a new lesson. (Isn’t that much of the allure of editing? Being exposed to differing viewpoints?) What follows is Ben’s response to my article.

(Benjamin Lukoff is a Seattle writer and editor. His first book, Seattle Then and Now, was published in 2010. He has a BA in English, with minors in linguistics and Russian, from the University of Washington, and an MA in English linguistics from University College London.)


What Is Linguistics? A Rebuttal

by Benjamin Lukoff

A week or so ago, a woman posted this question to the Freelance Editing Network group on LinkedIn, to which both Rich Adin and I belong: “If I’d like to have a career in editing, copyediting, proofreading, etc., what would be the best master’s degree for me?” She will be getting her English BA soon, and knows that a master’s isn’t necessary, but would like to pursue one anyway.

Which discipline, though? She mentioned communications, writing, and publishing, and was leaning toward communications. My advice was that, of the three, she’d be most likely to further her craft knowledge in a publishing program. However, I thought linguistics would be far more interesting, and would give her a much more well-rounded perspective on language issues. (I also noted that the reason people have told her a master’s isn’t necessary is because having done the work is far more important than credentials. I’d rather hire someone with four years of experience than someone with two years of experience and a two-year masters.)

A few days later, Rich joined the thread. He agreed with me on the vocational issue, but suggested as a course of study philosophy or law, which “teach you to think,” as opposed to linguistics, which “focuses on structure…[which] is mechanical.” He expanded his thoughts in a recent post to An American Editor, What Is Editing?

I am a regular reader and a great fan of An American Editor, so I was pleasantly surprised to be mentioned in his post, if not by name. I did, however, feel it necessary to leave a comment countering his characterization of linguistics, just as I had done in the LinkedIn thread. Rich has kindly given me the opportunity to expand on those here.

The canonical definition of linguistics is “the scientific study of human language.” That can be a bit misleading, and so I am not entirely surprised that some people’s perception is that it is mostly about structural issues: primarily those of syntax, but also of phonology and morphology. Structuralism was indeed the dominant paradigm in the field from Ferdinand de Saussure in the first decade of the 20th century until the advent of generative grammar in the sixth.

Even the latter, most often associated with Noam Chomsky, remains fundamentally concerned with rule-based manipulation of linguistic objects. Chomsky has called anything else — including the study of actual usage — a form of butterfly collecting. But there is far more to linguistics than it seems Chomsky would prefer. William Labov, a sociolinguist speaking at the same conference at which Chomsky made that comment, is in that sense a pioneering lepidopterist, having made his mark with The Social Stratification of English in New York City in 1966 and producing important and insightful research on language in the wild for nearly half a century since.

Labov and his ilk are, of course, not alone. The second part of Rich’s characterization of linguistics involves the “lineage” of language, and linguistics does indeed cover that too, in the form of historical linguistics and etymology. But it also includes, in addition to sociolinguistics (as noted above, the effects of society on language and vice versa), psycholinguistics (the cognitive processes involved in language), semantics (meaning), pragmatics (meaning in context), and phonetics (the actual sounds of speech). Ideally it touches almost every other discipline, as hardly any human endeavor is possible without language. (Leonard Bernstein famously based the premise of his Norton Lectures on the parallels between music and language, discussing pieces in terms of their syntax, phonology, and semantics.) The collective authors of Wikipedia do not exaggerate when they write that “Linguistics…draws on and informs work from such diverse fields as acoustics, anthropology, biology, computer science, human anatomy, informatics, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and speech-language pathology”; if anything, this list is too short.

Of course, that is the ideal state, and that is something I realized when reading the note in which Rich asked me to write this post. He took his linguistics courses in the mid 1960s, when the modern discipline was still fairly new. In addition, his school was too small to have a separate department, and so linguistics was part of English. I have long felt that departments of modern languages are doing their students a disservice if they teach literature without teaching language, but I also think that linguistics can never be more than philology if it is treated as a mere appendage. Given that, I realized that our disagreement wasn’t so much about linguistics, but about our definitions of the term “linguistics.” (I was lucky enough to receive my schooling at large institutions in the 1990s, by which time it was a well-established field).

This particular misunderstanding is ultimately a minor one, but I mention it because one of the most important things I think editors need to realize (everyone does, really, but this blog is about editing) is that not everyone means the same things by the same words. More broadly, there is variation in language, both in usage and understanding, and regardless of how one feels about that, one must take it into account. I still think no course of study hammers that home quite the way linguistics does, especially when one wishes to work with language professionally. I am sure I am a better editor because of my linguistics background, just as I’d like to think I brought a broader perspective to my linguistics work because of my editorial background. I’m also a believer in the possibility of bridging the unbridgeable gap that seems to exist between descriptivists, prescriptivists, and laypeople, who often seem to be caught in the middle. This isn’t an editor’s primary function, of course, but I think it’s a worthy sideline that can only improve the lot of everyone who truly loves language.

Again, I’d recommend simply getting experience over any further course of study to a college graduate who wants to break into the editorial industry. But if she insists on further schooling, I cannot recommend linguistics highly enough.


Do you agree with Ben? Does it really matter, in the end, what education courses one pursues? Or is experience what matters? If experience is what matters, how does one go about getting that experience?


  1. I can’t say whether formal education or experience matters more than the other, having not had the benefit of both to compare. However, it seems that a combination of both is best.

    Part of the question lies in what type of editing one intends to do. For instance, I often see ads for technical editors in the sciences that insist on a degree in the subject or one closely related. Well, that’s the end of that: Lacking any college degree, I don’t qualify to even apply for the opportunity. Earlier in my freelancing career, I considered returning to school in order to up my knowledge in any technical field in order to have a chance at what I believed to be better-paying opportunities. (Not sure if this is true any more, having seen job opps requiring Ph.D.’s offering hourly rates less than I command!) I chose not to spend the time and money on a low-proportion payback.

    Point is, formal education in whatever field one desires to work in would be a huge plus in one’s editorial qualifications.

    Similarly, in fiction, some authors or houses seek editors who have lots of experience in a particular genre or segment of the industry (large traditional publishing house vs. small press or indie author). There are few formal education programs that qualify an editor for the publishing industry in general and fiction segment in particular, so most editorial experience in those areas comes from experience or apprenticeship. A colleague of mine recounts a tale where she was welcomed exuberantly onto a publisher’s roster because she *wasn’t* a writer. That suggests that a degree in creative writing or literature may not be the best plan for editorial success in fiction.

    For people like myself, who are generalists, the best qualification seems to be a liberal arts degree and massive, diverse reading and life activities history. You can’t know enough about anything/everything for that line of work!

    Both Rich and Benjamin have valid arguments for the type of study they recommend, and I don’t see how either could harm someone with editorial ambitions. What seems key is knowing what branch or type of editing, in what field, you want to do. If it’s something specific, then a subject-oriented course of study makes best sense. If it’s something broader, then a general course of study with a language concentration makes sense. Build philosophy into either option and read it on one’s own to round out the program. Ditto basic business training, even if you are aiming for a corporate job. It helps to understand what the company is doing even if you are just a cog in its greater set of wheels. If you go solo, of course, you need basic business skills to merely survive.


    Comment by Carolyn — September 2, 2013 @ 6:23 am | Reply

  2. I don’t see either linguistics or philosophy as better than each other, or better than any other course of study, as training for an editing career. It’s more important to learn how to think, do research and go beyond the basics of a topic. I think what’s important is to study something you love, so you go into it in depth and do well in it. I learned early on that I don’t do well in anything that bores me. I can do OK in courses that I recognize as useful, but I only shine in ones that grab my interest. I found an introductory undergrad course in journalism boring, but knew I wanted to write (and maybe edit), so I switched from journalism to comparative literature and languages for my major – which I loved, and which taught me a lot about more than one language – and worked on the campus newspaper.
    As for experience, you get that by starting early, ideally while in college. Working on a student newspaper or magazine is usually great training (I actually created two magazines while in high school, one for a summer leadership program, one because I got rejected by the official school magazine!). If you can’t get an entry-level editing job in the real world, you might have to do some pro bono work to build up skills and contacts.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 2, 2013 @ 10:35 am | Reply

  3. I agree with Carolyn’s comment that a combination of relevant educational and editing experiences are the best preparation for an editing career. I was fortunate to get both.

    My graduate degree was in linguistics with an emphasis on professional writing. I got my first experience as an editor while earning that degree by working with the researchers in our veterinary school. I think I could have done the editing without my knowledge of linguistics. But I’m glad I didn’t have to. With a linguistics background, I could not only identify and recommend editorial changes, but I could explain WHY those changes were advisable to the authors. For instance, I remember a researcher who produced strings of sentences without good flow — to the point that his writing was almost incomprehensible. I was able to teach him about cohesion in a few minutes, using his own written words. (I have a short video tutorial on the subject for workplace writers at That linguistic knowledge provided me with confidence in my judgments. And that confidence translated into respect from authors. The same is true for the guidance I provide to workplace writers now that I teach more than I edit.

    I believe that relevant educational experiences should make the tacit knowledge of professionals explicit for novices. At its core, the tacit knowledge of professional editors is about language. But the only academic program I know of that combines linguistics and editing is at BYU, where a colleague from my own graduate program teaches. See


    Comment by ProsWrite — September 2, 2013 @ 10:44 am | Reply

    • An editing minor! Fascinating. I would have given serious thought to taking that if I’d been at BYU.

      May I ask where you got your graduate degree? I love the idea of a program that combines linguistics with writing.


      Comment by Benjamin Lukoff (@lukobe) — September 3, 2013 @ 1:24 pm | Reply

      • I was truly lucky, Benjamin. I earned my PhD in linguistics and writing at LSU in 1990. At the time, there was a linguistics professor housed in English (Frank Parker) who saw the value of a different kind of “applied” linguistics. The field usually refers to those who teach a language to non-native speakers. Frank’s notion was that linguistics can (and should) be applied in any profession where language is central. So I took linguistics classes (from phonology to discourse analysis) along with composition (e.g., rhetorical theory) and technical/business writing (e.g., teaching technical writing) classes. Some of my classmates were creative writers looking for ways to supplement their income through technical editing jobs; others wanted to become English professors and focus on freshman/academic writing. Frank has retired, and the program appears to have died.

        It was an incredible educational experience. I believe my colleague at BYU is providing something similar at the undergraduate level.


        Comment by ProsWrite — September 4, 2013 @ 11:08 am | Reply

  4. I agree with that


    Comment by Rhinne — September 8, 2013 @ 12:20 am | Reply

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