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.)

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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.

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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?

August 22, 2011

Working Alone — Or Not?

Today’s guest article is by Ruth Thaler-Carter. Ruth is the owner of Communication Central, the sponsor of the upcoming conference “Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century” conference sponsored by Communication Central and scheduled for September 30 – October 1, 2011, in Baltimore, MD (see Worth Noting: Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century), as well as a freelance editor and writer.

Ruth’s article is a response to my recent article, One Is the Loneliest Number. Needless to say, I will respond to Ruth’s article. Ruth argues for the solo freelancer remaining solo.

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Working Alone — Or Not?

by Ruth Thaler-Carter

As my favorite professional time of year approaches – time for the Communication Central conference (September 30–October 1, in Baltimore, MD, this year), I’ve been thinking about the meaning of being an editorial entrepreneur; a freelancer, in less-lofty parlance.

Colleagues have talked here about the nature of freelancing in terms of someone working alone versus as part of a larger entity or
partnership, perhaps even with subcontractors or employees. Many colleagues believe that the future of editorial freelancing is in grouping together and functioning as teams or even companies with employees, or at least subcontractors. Some colleagues believe that the day of the one-person freelance operation is approaching its nadir; others see a continuing future for the one-person business—as long as that person has a network of colleagues to make it  possible to find and accept more complex projects.

I’m firmly in the camp of being and remaining a sole practitioner—doing all the activity required of a freelance writing, editing, proofreading, desktop publishing, and speaking business myself. I like being hands-on for my business, knowing my own skills and working around any limits I might have, controlling when and how I work—all aspects that make freelancing deeply appealing, and being a sole practitioner an ideal way to exercise those preferences. I’ve never felt a need to partner formally with another colleague.

But this doesn’t mean that I work in a vacuum, or would want to. I’m certainly not antisocial; I’m one of the most extroverted, gregarious people you’ll ever meet. I may not want to share my projects and profits with colleagues as a permanent business model, but I often partner with colleagues: a graphic designer who can bring artistic skills to a project, a tech writer who can create content on a level that’s beyond me, a photographer on a professional basis. I still get to do what I love doing—the writing, editing, proofreading, layout, etc.—and can take on projects that otherwise I would have to turn down, or at best do less of and profit less from. Having colleagues to turn to for such partnerships means that I can take on projects that would otherwise be beyond me. Most of those partnerships have turned out well, but not well enough to tempt me into changing the structure or nature of my editorial business. I still prefer to position myself as not just an entrepreneur, but a sole practitioner.

I do interact regularly with colleagues through professional
organizations. I’m a huge fan of networking, in person and, nowadays, electronically. As some readers of this blog know, I’m very active in several memberships associations. This is the main way that I overcome the potential isolation of being a one-person shop and connect with other people. Not just clients, but colleagues, many of whom have become friends as well.

I look forward to the Communication Central conference because I think that a gathering of colleagues is a valuable—perhaps even invaluable—resource for any freelance writer, editor, proofreader, website developer, graphic artist, indexer, etc. We’re all trying to succeed in an increasingly competitive world for editorial professionals, as publishing contracts, e-publishing expands, and outsourcing continues to drive down prices in some areas. We need each other more than ever these days—even those of us who intend to retain a solo business structure.

It’s ever-more-important to meet and learn from each other, and occasionally work with each other. Maybe not as ongoing formal business partners, but as backup or added value for specific assignments and projects, as well as for advice and even a shoulder to lean or cry on. It’s important just to know that there are people available to turn to when an intriguing project is on the horizon that you can’t tackle alone.

We also need to expand our perception of how and where to market our skills. We can learn about marketing without fear from each other without necessarily poaching on each other’s territory or client base.

Meeting in person is also a great opportunity to learn from each other about the tools we need, how they work, and how to make the most of them.

There’s just something special about putting faces, voices, and personalities to those e-mail addresses, Twitter handles, and other electronic networking environments of our current era!

I might have developed a business model that combines the best of both worlds: the sole practitioner and the partnership or group. I’m committed to retaining my identity as a one-person shop, but I still see interacting with colleagues as a key element of the success of my editorial business. The advice and insights, and occasional project participation, of colleagues help me maintain my solo business and keep it growing.

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Although I understand the desire to work solo, I wonder if it will be possible to do so and earn a reasonable living in coming years. What do you think? Do you agree with Ruth Thaler-Carter? What do you envision the future freelancer’s working environment will be like?

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