Prescriptivists go home

I’m a member of an editor’s group in the Netherlands that has an email forum, where members can post questions or comments on issues that have come up in their day’s work. Recently, one of the members was editing a scientific article written by a Dutch academic. The academic in question had consistently used a word in a way that would be strange in general (i.e. non-scientific) English. The editor was wondering what to do about it.

Before I got to the thread, a whole series of other people had answered. Unanimously, they agreed that the usage was wrong, sourcing dictionaries and Wikipedia. It surprised me to see that not one of them seemed to have considered the possibility of field-specific jargon. Now, I’m not saying that jargon is my favourite thing in the world. But when you’re editing a scientific paper and you see a peculiar usage not once but many times, this is when alarm bells should start going off. This is when you should STOP ‘correcting’ it, and go check on it. And by ‘check’, I don’t mean look in a general dictionary. That’s a world away from scientific terminology. I also don’t mean look in Wikipedia, much as my life is better for it. I mean look at the field in which the paper is going to be published – google around for academic articles on the same topic, or, better yet, published in the same journal your client is aiming for. In this case, it was plain to see that the usage in question was common in scientific papers.

If you’re still not sure, check with the author (shock horror, I know). I’d simply leave a comment in the text, saying the usage is strange in general English and asking if it’s typical of the field. This means all the client has to do is think ‘yes, you ignoramous’ and delete the comment, rather than laboriously re-correcting all your erroneous corrections. If the client turns out to be unsure about the word – which, in my experience, is never the case with academics – then THAT is the time to try to come up with a better option together.

Now, this to me seems self-evident. Scientists know the jargon of their field better than I do. But the folk on the forum begged to differ. By ‘allowing’ this sort of thing, we as editors are just compounding the ‘error’, they said. Wrong. Wrong in two ways, in fact.

First, if an entire speech community (in this case, the members of a specific scientific discipline) uses a particular usage, it is not an error. By definition, because it is then no longer deviant. Scientific English is not general English, and within that, medical English is not microbiological English is not marine micropaleontological English. Just because something is wrong in general English (however ‘wrong’ is defined) doesn’t make it wrong in a specific field. What’s more, if the client is an established academic AND uses the term repeatedly, chances are that it’s right.

Second, the whole attitude is way off. As editors, we are not employed to ‘allow’ and ‘disallow’ things, to sweep in with our white horses and red pens to ‘safeguard’ English somehow from hordes of non-native speakers with their mangled jargony English. That’s not what we are paid for. We are paid to ensure the academic gets published in the journal they want. Well, more specifically: we are paid to ensure that the target journal cannot reject their submission on the basis of their English. Some clients want to be made to sound more or less like native speakers, but essentially this is the crux of it. You’re not the saviour and protector of the English language, there to impart your all-knowing editory native-speakerness on their texts. You’re there to make sure their English reflects the English of their own academic community. So do the job, take the money, and put your prescriptivist cross away.


5 thoughts on “Prescriptivists go home

  1. I’m with you most of the way here. Just one thought though: if a paper is being proof-read for publication in a more general journal, field-specific jargon is surely still a problem that a proof-reader can (and should) help resolve…


    • Hi Dave, thanks for you comment. Sure, you’re absolutely right – in that case we’re talking about a different kettle of fish; if the audience is general, then the jargon should go!


  2. I wouldn’t see this as a case of misguided prescriptivism, more a question of a fundamental misunderstanding (on your colleagues’ part). Clearly, different linguistic standards apply in different text genres. That is one of the basic tenets that writers, editors and translators need to grasp from day one. An article for a broadsheet needs a different structure and sentence pattern to that of a blog post. Ditto for a press release vs a report. And so on and so forth. Ee dear …


  3. Your last para is very well said. We are employed to correct the words but should always keep the writer’s voice and the writer’s community. Jargon can always be explained in a glossary if the paper is to be published for general readership.


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