An American Editor

October 29, 2010

The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills

Over the past several weeks, I have had opportunities to speak with the heads of production at several of my clients. After our direct business discussion, we sort of wandered off topic to discuss the current state of copyediting and copyeditors.

What I found interesting was that each of the persons I spoke with had the same lament: There is a dearth of copyeditors with good grammar skills. What they have noticed is the wide gap in skill level between those who are nearing retirement (high on the skill scale) and those now entering the field or who have been in the field for only a few years (low on the skill scale).

Grammar and spelling skills appear to be declining among editors, or so I was told. These clients believe that editors increasingly are relying on software programs to tell them when there is a grammar or spelling error, and taking the software’s suggested correction without exercising the independent judgement that is required to determine whether or not the software is correct.

What brought this up was my mentioning that I occasionally speak at gatherings of freelancers about the business of freelance editing. In each instance, the client suggested that it would be significantly more beneficial — for both the client and the copyeditors seeking business — if grammar was addressed. One client said that of 100 editing tests administered, they were lucky if 1 got a passing grade and that it was rare for testees to get very high passing grades.

Another problem they all cited was the obvious reliance on spell-checker. One client wondered if the editors even owned printed dictionaries and usage guides, or if they did, if the editor knew how to use them. Two examples were cited: The first was there and their. The client remarked that it was not unusual, anymore, to receive a copyedited manuscript with the incorrect term left as presented by the author. The second was that and who. Apparently people have become objects and many copyeditors do not correct a sentence such as “The students and teachers that became…” or “The patients that were tested….” Other examples given were that and which and since and because.

I don’t know if the full cause of the problem can be laid at the feet of the education system, but certainly a significant portion of it can. I know that when my children were in school, grammar was barely touched on as a subject. I also know that when I look at the writing of many educators, there is a clear lack of facility with grammar. This is not to say that the best of us don’t make grammar mistakes; rather the problem is that what was once occasional error has become commonplace.

Yet, the question is this: How many copyeditors recognize that their grammar skills are less than stellar and would be willing to pay to attend a conference devoted to improving grammar skills? I suspect, based on conversations that I have had with colleagues, that most think the problem is not their problem but is that of someone else. It is the state of humanness that lets us readily perceive the faults of others but not our own.

I expect the problem to get worse long before it gets better. Unless how teachers are taught/educated undergoes significant reform and a new emphasis is placed on communication skills that include grammar, spelling, and writing, I do not think improvement will occur. As the transmitters of knowledge, teachers have to be the first to gain it.

It also may symptomatic of today’s culture. In my youth, one way grammar skills were picked up was by osmosis — reading well-edited books, magazines, and newspapers could only lead to absorption of some of the “rules.” But today, reading overall is in decline. Interestingly, what is on the incline are those tasks that reward brevity and substitution — all that matters is that the general message be sent and understood, the twittering of grammar.

It doesn’t help that we are in an age of anyone who wants can publish. It means that a lot of grammatically and spelling-poor material is available for reading, which only acts to reinforce poor habits. Is there an easy solution? No. But based on the discussions I had with clients, there is a definite need for copyeditors to recognize their limitations and voluntarily undertake the effort to improve their skills.

What do you think? Would you pay for grammar-focused class or do you think you already have a high skill level?

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