March 04, 2004

Jail copy editors for the right reasons

The news that copy-editing a paper before it appears in a journal may be a criminal offense if they come from one of the Bad Guy countries (further details here) is perhaps the most astonishing I have encountered in months (despite a ready flow of often astounding news, both on Language Log and elsewhere).

I'm all in favor of sending copy editors to jail; but I think it should be for their actual practices: changing which to that in a bid to impose the (completely mythical) generalization that which is not used in what The Cambridge Grammar calls integrated relatives (the kind without the commas); altering the position of adjuncts in phrases like willing to at least consider it because of a belief in the (again, completely mythical) view that there something called an "infinitive" in English and it should not be "split"; and so on.

I've spent too much time struggling (after editorial acceptance) for the right to use grammatical sentences in my own native language, battling against the enforcement of arbitrary cryptogrammatical dogmata. Send these which-hunters and adjunct-shifters to jail for a few months, by all means. Put them in solitary on a bread and water diet. Take away their red pencils. But not because the work they are fiddling with is by an author who happens to have the misfortune to live in Iran.

In fact, if I may extend my scrupulous sense of fairness even to copy editors, some of the changes they make to foreign-originated work will doubtless be to fix genuine errors in English crafted by non-native speakers, and that should count as a service to us, the Anglophone readers, not as a service illegally rendered to agents of a hostile foreign power.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 4, 2004 03:07 PM