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?

August 28, 2013

What is Editing?

Have you ever wondered what editing really is? Or about what course of study is best for preparing for an editing career?

The practical answer to the latter is that it doesn’t matter what you study because education is valuable and broadening; experience matters more. But when backed to the wall, my answer, unlike that of many of my colleagues, is that the best courses of study are philosophy and law.

The reason is because of what editing is. Editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application. I suppose a little context would be helpful.

The matter arose in a discussion on LinkedIn in which I suggested philosophy as the best course of study and another member suggested linguistics. Linguistics is a wonderful field and certainly of great interest to editors, but it is a structural field. True, it wonders about word origins as well as how words are used, but its focus is the structure and lineage of language.

Philosophy and law, on the other hand, focus not on structure but on how to think. Both are “argumentative” fields — Does a god exist? If I don’t see you, do you really exist? What is my place in society? — What role should/does X play in social affairs? — that require thinking about all sides of a question. The difference, I think, between the philosophy-trained thinker and the linguistics-trained thinker is the difference between the average chess player and the chess champion. We all can learn to play chess and even to play it well; few of us, however, can master the advance thinking techniques required to be a grandmaster.

(Before I stray too far afield, let me reiterate that all education is good and all education can prepare a person for the intellectual challenges of editing. What we are discussing is the hierarchy.)

Much of editing is structure-oriented, such as grammar and spelling, and coding manuscript. Structure is mechanical and can be self-taught or picked up in a couple of courses on, for example, grammar. I grant that it is the rare person who develops that same depth and breadth of knowledge about the structural issues via self-learning or a couple of entry-level courses as would be obtained from the rigors of a university major in linguistics, but how much is really needed for editing, especially as editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application.

Over my 30 years as an editor, what I have most realized about some of my editor colleagues is that they are very capable of applying the “rules” of language. Where they are weak, and what I think often distinguishes the good, competent editor from the great editor, is that they are unable to “think” about what they are editing. They are unable to grasp a broader picture by, for example, putting themselves in the shoes of a variety of readers or by analyzing a text from multiple angles. To use another metaphor, most editors are like professional baseball players in that they are the better, more professional, more able players from the pool of would-be professional players, but are not the superstars who are an even more finite group. Baseball fans recall Willie Mays, for example, but how many of his teammates on the 1954 World Series team do we remember?

It is this “thinking” ability that I believe philosophy and law teach but that linguistics and other study disciplines do not. Linguistics will teach us how to ascertain the origins of all the variations of “god,” but not to think about what “god” means in the context of the manuscript and as being conveyed to the variety of hoped-for readers of the published manuscript. Linguistics doesn’t really teach the art of communication as much as it teaches the science of communication, but editing is (or should be, I think) more concerned with the art than the science.

I am not suggesting that the science of editing is unimportant. Knowing what punctuation to use where and when is very important in making sure that the author’s meaning is correctly understood (using Lynne Truss’s famous example, is it “eats shoots and leaves” or “eats, shoots, and leaves”?). Knowing whether the right word is being used to convey the intended meaning is equally important, as is choosing among the homophones (does the author mean to, too, or two?). And good editors do these tasks well and correctly. For the most part, I suspect, this is the job for which most editors are hired. And this is the job for which most education prepares us.

Yet there can be more to editing than just those tasks. And, for many of us, when we suggest rewriting a sentence or a paragraph or reordering paragraphs or chapters, we are embarking on that additional path. As we gain experience, we begin to think differently about language and its use. I know that the editing I did 30 years ago is not as good as the editing I do today; those intervening years have taught me many things and exposed me to many new ways of looking at language. The more I read and learn, the better editor I become.

But even 30 years ago I had the advantage of having been trained to think analytically. That is the legacy of a philosophy and law education: It is not what to think, but how to think. What I think about is of little importance to philosophy; the methodology of thinking about it is important.

Editing is a combination of structure and philosophy; it is not one without the other. The more accomplished one is as an editor, the more skilled one is at both prongs. Most of us begin our editing careers strong in one prong but not the other, and we build strength in both prongs as we gain experience. But if asked what is the best course of study for a wannabe editor, my answer is philosophy or law because it is learning how to think that is hardest to master.

Once we have mastered how to think about language, we learn that editing is more the art of language compromise and less the science of applying rules.

February 19, 2010

On Books: English Words: History and Structure

As an editor, I always want to better my understand of my native language. Consequently, I am constantly on the lookout for books to add to my reference library or from which I can learn something new about English.

I saw an ad in one of my literary magazines (I think it was the New York Review of Books) for Robert Stockwell and Donka Minkova’s English Words: History and Structure, 2nd edition. I knew it would be expensive when I saw the publisher (Cambridge University Press) and I was not disappointed: it was listed as a textbook, presumably for a college course, which was reflected in the list price of $105.

I’m not averse to spending $100 on a book (one of the best books I ever bought was Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life, a 2-volume biography published by Johns Hopkins University Press listing at $125), but I like to be sure I’m getting value for my money, and so I hesitated. There was nothing in the brief description of the book to indicate why it warranted such a price.

I decided to look for a first edition of the book; I wondered how much could have changed in this subject in the few years between the first and second editions to make a first edition outdated. I found that the first edition was still available. I was unable to discover what had changed to make the second edition a must-have edition and so I bought the first edition of the book, also new and in hardcover, but for $33.75, a significant savings. I am glad I didn’t go for the $105 2nd edition version (a paperback version of the 2nd edition is also available for less than the hardcover’s $105 price, but I prefer to buy hardcover books for my library).

English Words: History and Structure is definitely a course book. It is clearly written for a captive audience. It is not a consumer-friendly book, it is dryly written, perhaps a reflection of the subject matter, and it is a step-by-step guide to a basic understanding of linguistics.

If you are interested in learning the basic vocabulary of linguistics so that you can converse knowledgeably about the phonology and morphology of word formation, this is a good book with which to start that exploration. The authors do a good job of breaking down linguistics into its component parts. Essentially, the book is a sophisticated outline of the subject matter in overview rather than an in-depth discourse.

It explains and defines linguistic terms and how they are used, somewhat like an expanded dictionary of linguistics. For example, Place of articulation is described as “This parameter in the description of consonants refers to the parts of the vocal tract involved in the production of a given sound.” This is followed by examples and then the next topic, Manner of articulation. It is short and sweet, no lengthy discourse into any single topic. And the authors deserve praise for making the topics accessible and understandable to a decently educated layperson.

Have you ever wondered how language sounds are written out so that everyone understands what sound is being discussed? The answer is found in the section “The Sounds of English, 2.1 Phonetic notation systems.” (There are several systems; the Oxford English Dictionary uses the International Phonetic Alphabet system.) The various systems are mentioned but not discussed in detail, as is appropriate for this overview book. It would have been nice, however, had there been direct pointers to sources of information on the systems not adhered to in this book.

This is not a book for everyday reading or for the person with a casual interest in language. It really is better used as a library reference. The book is short (including appendices and index the 1st edition is 208 pages), yet contains a great deal of information. I wouldn’t buy it for my library at $105, but at $33.75 it is a worthwhile addition to my collection and to the collection of anyone who wishes to grasp the fundamentals of linguistics. Without more details on what distinguishes the second edition from the first, I would suggest buying the first edition while it is available.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: