Student guest post: Competing with evolving language

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Stephanie Zimmerman is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in music and journalism.

It is an editor’s job to make writing accessible to readers. The writing must be clear, factually accurate and stylistically and grammatically consistent. But how much emphasis should editors really place on grammatical and stylistic consistency in the age of the Internet?

Look on any social media site, and you’ll probably find an abundance of grammatical errors. Some errors, of course, cannot be overlooked because they obscure the meaning of a sentence. However, there are many common mistakes people make that do little to obscure meaning.

For example, an error that people often make unknowingly is the distinction between quantities: number vs. amount, less vs. fewer and over vs. more than. People using “number” and “amount” interchangeably is one of my peeves, but the distinction really doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence to make it unrecognizable (which is probably why people so often confuse the use of those words).

“Number” is used to describe a definitive quantity that could, theoretically, be counted: “The number of people waiting in line for tickets is outrageous.” But if you were to replace the word “number” with “amount” in that sentence, it would make just as much sense to the reader: “The amount of people waiting in line for tickets is outrageous.”

Why do we continue to make the distinction in our writing? Well, that’s the rule, obviously. But isn’t our goal as editors to make things understandable for the reader? If the reader can understand the sentence just as easily, why bother changing it?

Part of the reason is consistency. It is important to have a style to follow so as not to confuse or turn off readers. For example, some stylebooks allow the serial comma, while others forbid it unless the clarity of the sentence is at stake. Each is acceptable practice, but using the serial comma inconsistently seems unprofessional to readers and looks like an editorial mistake.

From a linguistics standpoint, people often argue that all forms of the English language are appropriate if they make sense to the reader. They also cite language change as a reason to not worry so much about distinctions that people often ignore. Michaela Neeley, a linguistics student at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that since language is constantly evolving, sticking to outdated rules that most people overlook causes writers and editors to be behind the rest of the population with language rules and practices.

It is true that stylebooks and even dictionaries sometimes take a while to catch up with the rest of society. The online Merriam Webster dictionary still uses a hyphen in the word “e-mail,” but language has changed so that it is more common to see the word without the hyphen today.

So where do editors stand on the issue? Where should the line be drawn between outdated, old-fashioned grammar rules and incorrect usage that is becoming incorporated into the mainstream English vocabulary? Is it OK to be grammatically incorrect as long as it doesn’t affect readers’ ability to understand what you are saying?

Grammatical distinctions exist for a reason. Even if readers understand what you’re saying, inconsistency looks unprofessional, and even if they know what you’re trying to say, some readers may be put off when you use what they were taught was the incorrect use of words such as “number” and “amount.”

However, stylebooks are beginning to eliminate some of the distinctions I mentioned earlier. In the newest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, it is now acceptable to use the word “over” when referring to quantity.

As far as when style and grammar changes should occur, I think it is better to proceed with caution. It would help publications to know their audiences in order to better gauge when to make stylistic changes, but being behind the times stylistically is usually better than being hasty to jump on language changes that may not yet be accepted by the majority of readers.